Industry cluster takes flight

Aviation manufacturers find strength in collaboration

Posted on Jul 15, 2016 :: Cover Story
Posted by , Insight on Manufacturing Staff Writer

Summer has always been the peak of aviation activity for Northeast Wisconsin, especially for the Oshkosh region.

For more than 50 years, Oshkosh has served as the home for the Experimental Aircraft Association’s AirVenture, an event bringing more than 500,000 aviation enthusiasts and leaders to a city with just 65,000 residents.

It’s the perfect backdrop for people interested in branding the area as an aviation hub to use for launching plans that raise the region’s profile as an industry supply cluster.

With more than 300 manufacturers in Wisconsin supplying the aerospace and aviation industries, tremendous opportunities exist, says Meredith Jaeger, executive director of the Wisconsin Family Business Forum at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh and the founder of AeroInnovate.

“If you take that, and you add to that the fact that this state is either No. 1 or No. 2 every year in terms of manufacturing jobs per capita, and you layer on top of that what the market opportunity is for aerospace — the U.S. is the No. 1 exporter of parts and components in the world — and the aerospace industry is the ninth-fastest growing industry in the world,” Jaeger says.

“All that information alone proves that this is a huge opportunity — for us as a state, and specifically, here in Northeast Wisconsin — to take advantage of that and the market opportunity to further develop and grow our current manufacturing base in the industry,” she says.

One key component to tapping those opportunities, and growing the region’s reputation as an industry hub, is the ready-for-business aviation business park, 80 acres of ready-to-develop land located south of Ripple Road between Oregon Street and the runway at Wittman Airport.

The park will house maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) type businesses related to the aviation industry.

“We purchased the land about two years ago and crews have been working out there on the infrastructure to make sure the lots are buildable,” Jaeger says. “The entire process has gone a bit slower than we anticipated but we are now making more progress as we move ahead.”

The branding of the region as an aviation supply cluster grew out of the supply chain studies initiated following the economic shockwaves that occurred after declines in defense spending and Oshkosh Defense’s completion of several large contracts. Those studies sought to identify existing and new supply chain opportunities for regional companies with advanced manufacturing capabilities.

Aviation was identified early on as a key market for growth.

Among the first steps to be taken in strengthening the cluster will be asking how regional economic developers can help existing aviation-related companies further penetrate the market. In addition, what do manufacturers that have the capabilities and capacities, but aren’t currently in the supply chain, need to enter the segment?

“We did a study of the targeted industry market and how we can integrate the MRO piece and additive manufacturing,” Jaeger says.

Many manufacturers see additive manufacturing as the next evolution for the industry as a whole. Jaeger says the business park will need to have the capacity to work with this new way of manufacturing products.

“The biggest thing with additive manufacturing is that we need to educate our folks on what it is and how do you do it and most importantly, what it can mean in terms of a market opportunity for them,” Jaeger says. “For additive manufacturing, the education and outreach piece is going to be huge for us for the next three years.”

Jaeger also says she sees additive manufacturing becoming more of a practice in the region; however, there is no timeline for when this will be integrated into practice.

Summertime is prime time

EAA’s AirVenture held annually the last week of July brings airplane enthusiasts from all around the globe to one location to get hands-on experience and advice about working within the industry.

From welding to fabrication, an abundance of knowledge is exchanged between some of the top manufacturing executives and those who are leading the efforts with the Aviation Business Park initiative.

They say the summer’s convention is a great time to show off what the region has to offer.

“We would be remiss if we don’t capitalize on AirVenture,” says Audra Hoy, director of business & economic development with Greater Oshkosh Economic Development Corporation. “Since we will have over a half million people coming to us, we definitely want to capitalize on that, especially this summer since we have shovel-ready lots for the park. We are ready to rock and roll.”

AeroInnovate, a group that has been with the project since its inception, makes an effort to bring prospective manufacturing and business clients to Oshkosh to show off the opportunities it has in hopes some start-up and growing companies will choose Oshkosh as a place of choice to run their manufacturing operations.

“There are definitely interested prospects and the range of interest among others is vast, but very strong,” Hoy says. “Oshkosh is the home of general aviation, so it makes sense for people to want to be here.”

The factor behind the aviation brand Oshkosh has grown for itself happened more than 50 years ago when EAA relocated from Hales Corners. Since that time, many businesses and manufacturers such as Basler Flight Service, Sonex Aircraft and Myers Aviation Inc. have established roots to help contribute to the aviation hub.

Building an aviation cluster

“The aviation cluster is the term we are hoping will happen not only in Oshkosh, but also the Fox Valley as to how this area can be viewed as a strong, vibrant aviation community,” says Jack Pelton, president and chairman of the board for EAA. “It can be everything from Gulfstream’s completion center, to what EAA does themselves in terms of small manufacturing, to any activity in the region.”

Mark Schaible, general manager of Sonex Aircraft, Oshkosh, says recognizing and fostering collaboration among aviation manufacturers in the region helps leverage existing resources.

“The potential is that we can all serve the needs for each other,” Schaible says. “If one business has the capacity, then another one has a need. We don’t always have the highest level of awareness of each other — for example, we may be looking for a very specialized supplier, and therefore we can serve each other’s needs and support each other.” 

While Sonex has always had a high awareness of aviation suppliers in the region, Schaible says, many other manufacturers will benefit by recognizing a supply chain exists among them.

“We use as many local suppliers as we can to support the local and statewide economy, and also to keep transportation prices low. I look forward to more communication for all those involved to maybe find others they may not be aware of.”

Steve Myers of Myers Aviation, Oshkosh, says that while his company repairs and remodels small aircraft from throughout the country, recognizing Northeast Wisconsin as an important aviation hub may be helpful for others in the aviation industry.

“Aviation is a pretty small community,” Myers says. “I would be surprised if there was somebody I didn’t know about after being in business here 30 years.”

Myers Aviation has the market share in the Midwest for light aircraft rebuilding and repair for insurance purposes and is one of just a few companies nationally that repairs small aircraft, he adds. “I fill a niche that nobody else has locally.”

As Jaeger points out, the aviation business cluster throughout Northeast Wisconsin is stronger now, which mainly has to do with the collaboration between counties and airports.

“We understand that a win in Appleton is a win for Oshkosh, and a win for Oshkosh is a win for Fond du Lac,” Jaeger says. “All of those airports coming together with that same spirit of collaboration and that same attitude is a huge step forward in promoting our region as a great place to do business in the aerospace industry.”