I've been warned. 'The cool factor in here is pretty awesome,' says Kim Westenskow, Boeing's 787 factory superintendent, Position 4, as she escorts me to the assembly line in the company's Everett, Washington plant. But that's not the first thing that strikes you about this voluminous workspace, 380 feet wide and 10 football fields long. It's the absence of industrial racket. The Dreamliner's molded composite constituents are bolted together, and the holes are bored to the whir of air-driven, fluid-cooled, diamond-tipped drills. The aluminum 747 a few doors down requires drilling more than a million holes in metal, a process accompanied by ear-splitting fusillades of rivet guns and hammers. 'They're the other guys,' Westenskow explains. 'The loud ones. We're the quiet bunch.'"
"Inside Boeing's 787 Factory:The Dreamliner's quiet revolution." By Stephen Joiner: Air & Space magazine, July 2012
UTW readers know that in 2003 Tulsans approved a $350 million dollar proposition to secure the Boeing 787/next gen commercial airliner" assembly plant for Tulsa. The new facility, in the end located in Washington State is arguably the most advanced aerospace -- and one of the most sophisticated industrial assembly operations on the planet. And with its unique composite materials wings and fuselage, the 787 is the most savvy large civilian aircraft of our age. The aircraft received the 2011 Robert J. Collier Trophy for the greatest achievement in aeronautics in America -- and is selling like hot cakes. Boeing assembly lines, according to Air & Space writer Stephen Joiner, "are shifting into overdrive to turn them out at a rate outpacing any other wide-body in the industry."
Our local vote to approve Tulsa's bid for the Boeing operation was overwhelming at 60 percent. Tulsa didn't get the nod from Boeing. But Tulsa's "Boeing" vote was a powerful indicator of our willingness to support a vibrant aerospace community and would have put T-Town on a whole new aerospace/advanced industrial production trajectory.
As readers may know, leading elements of the Tulsa business community are in the midst of putting together an airport/aerospace improvement package.
This is the second of a two part look at what some are calling the aero-space or airport tax. I've tried to cover some of these topics in previous pieces in Cityscape. These two new pieces are my best attempt to get at the core of what's being proposed and maybe some of what should be proposed. It seems likely that an aerospace "plank" will be part of a November 2012 ballot that will reauthorize the 2003 vintage, 2025 improvement package.
Why Is Aerospace Uber Important?
Part of the importance of the aerospace sector stems from the fact that large numbers of local people are employed in the "space" and some or all of their income comes from the industry and its various affiliate operations and components. In economic development planning it's often the interplay between one sector of the economy and other elements that is as important as the sector itself. Another heavy dimension is the fact that aerospace/aviation is a primary economic activity as opposed to retail, entertainment, tourism and a bunch of other things that we might talk about. That is, aerospace has a very intense connection to industrial production -- things that are durable, require outsized, often highly compensated skill sets and major physical production facilities.
"Primaries" are also economic activities that cost quite a lot to maintain, grow and expand: They have a hot, very kinetic nexus to what Tulsa is at the moment and might be at some point in the not-too-distant future. The same is true for the country as a whole.
I've written at length in these pages about the exciting, some say epic transformations underway not only in commercial aviation, in space commercialization and the entire domain we could call automated aerial vehicle systems(UAVs) and their commercial applications: topics that I hope to write about at more length in future pieces -- I'll especially focus in work to come, on the fab, world class, UAV project at OSU.
For now, I'll take another sideways look at commercial aviation which has been a bread and butter thing for Tulsa for decades and is, so far at the core of the November "aero tax" initiative.
The Competitive Dynamic
NASA, America's space agency, is still involved in advancing some facets of commercial aviation -- including fostering a recent competition to prod the aerospace community into creating radical new designs for the next generation of American commercial airliners. The NASA "Next 25 Year Competition" produced three candidate designs that are extremely low fuel consumptive aircraft with highly efficient, low noise engines/airfoils.
All the winners employ composite materials -- allowing them to carry large numbers of passengers at low per-passenger seat mile costs. These features also allow them to be competitive -- when commercialized, in a world filled with the European/Airbus aircraft and possible competitive candidates from a newly aerospace savvy China. As it happens, a Chinese aerospace gambit could be very disruptive -- another looming instance of a powerful economic challenge that could, if we are not proactive, destroy American dominance in a space where we have a big presence.
"No other story illustrates the duality of Chinese power more aptly than that of China's civil aviation, a sector that, like the rest of the economy, was backward and disconnected from the West 30 years ago. Its aging fleet was mostly Soviet-made or crude copies. First-class seats, Fallows recounts, seemed to be overstuffed armchairs bolted to the floor, through which, incidentally, one could glimpse the landing gear. ...
"Now China has the world's second-largest commercial fleet (about half of America's). Its airlines, among the most dangerous two decades ago, now rank among the safest and the most valuable in terms of stock market prices. Its gleaming new airports offer a more pleasant travel experience than many aging American airports.The visible hand of the Chinese government certainly played a role in the explosive growth of the country's aviation industry. After all, Beijing has long identified this sector as a strategic industry and poured enormous investments into aviation infrastructure and purchases of modern jets. "
From Minxin Pei's recent review of James Fallows' new book China Airborne, a tight exploration of the emerging Chinese aerospace push.
So we will live in a world with the prospect of a new bevy of civilian commercial aircraft and all of the opportunities associated with maintaining, operating and even replacing these aircraft -- and if we are ambitious and imaginative, maybe even helping to design some of these items.
These things are challenge "one" for a T-Town that would be a leader in the aerospace world to come.
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