Salt Lake City, a contender to build Boeing’s 777X jet, offers a nonunion workforce and a growing aerospace cluster focused on composites. The Seattle Times reports this week on several of the sites bidding for Boeing’s new plane.
SALT LAKE CITY —On a recent day, new snow blanketed a 200-acre expanse of flat, empty land next to Boeing’s main facility alongside Salt Lake City’s airport.
Most of that blank white space is optioned by Boeing, which could lease and develop it to build some or all of its new 777X airliner.
Boeing mechanics assemble the tails of the 787 Dreamliner at its airport facility.
Some 20 miles south, Boeing is remodeling an 850,000-square-foot building in West Jordan, where it plans to fabricate large composite 787 parts.
As Boeing winnows down its list of 22 states bidding for the 777X, including Washington, it’s clear the company easily has enough room to expand in this business-friendly state.
Along the Salt Lake corridor, from Ogden in the north to Provo in the south, a composites industry has mushroomed that may draw Boeing to fabricate the 777X’s giant composite plastic wing here.
And the nonunion workforce, already skilled in making metal components, is a contender to get the job of 777X final assembly as well.
In a hands-on training class in advanced composites at Salt Lake Community College recently, a dozen of the 15 students were Boeing employees.
Mike Hawkins, 61, a veteran of more than 23 years at the Salt Lake airport facility whose day job is painting the 787 tail sections, intently vacuum-bagged a composite part, prepping it for hardening in a high-pressure oven.
Boeing pays for the 10-week training course, but he’s doing it on his own time.
“As Boeing goes more and more into composites, I want to go more into composites,” Hawkins said.
Jacob Cleland, 33, who produces 737 instrument consoles beside the airport, said he’s doing the course “to learn new things and be on the cutting edge.”
In addition to assembling the 787’s vertical tail fin and horizontal tail here, Boeing will soon fabricate the pieces of those tails in the new West Jordan facility.
“They’ve thrown everything at us,” said Bryan Brewster, 53, who assembles the 787 tails, reflecting on Boeing Salt Lake’s expanding variety of work. “Utah is the can-do crew.”
A hub for composites
The growing expertise in the Salt Lake area, where Hill Air Force Base is an Air Force center of excellence for composite repair and composite material research, has persuaded dozens of firms to locate or expand here.
Exelis will produce composite airframe substructures for the 787 at its Salt Lake City design and manufacturing center, Boeing recently announced.
Hexcel, also in Salt Lake, makes the carbon fiber and the epoxy resins that are the raw materials for composites.
North of the city, Janicki Industries, a top engineering company based in Washington state, machines composite wing skins for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
Nearby, ATK fabricates and finishes those F-35 wing skins in a military plant.
And in an adjacent, 627,000-square-foot plant for commercial-airplane components, ATK makes all the composite stiffening rods and half the circular composite frames for the fuselage of the Airbus A350 jetliner, as well as large cylindrical casings for Rolls-Royce and General Electric jet engines.
“The state of Utah has made the composites industry an important part of its economic-development plan,” said DeVor Taylor, vice president of military aircraft at ATK.
A tour of ATK’s facilities offered a glimpse of the growing high-tech aerospace industry here — a composites supply chain Boeing could leverage for 777X.
From carbon-fiber tape supplied by Hexcel just down the highway, ATK forms the long A350 fuselage stiffeners on proprietary automated machines. It then rolls them on trolleys into a large room, where thousands of large, closely-spaced steel ball bearings are embedded in the floor.
Over that slippery floor, a single operator can glide a trolley laden with heavy stiffeners to an autoclave where they are baked to hardness.
The stiffening rods are then precisely machined and dropped in a water bath where every one is inspected by sonar technology for imperfections.
ATK Vice President Steve Earl said the company’s first big commercial-airplane contract — the composite fan case for the GEnx engine that powers Boeing’s 747-8 — came only in 2006, after the 787 supply chain was already established.
“Our technology was a little too late for the 787,” said Earl. “We got the next one,” meaning the next new airplane, the Airbus A350.
“And we hope to get a Boeing program too,” Earl added.
Taxes and training
Salt Lake City’s one drawback as a manufacturing site is that it’s landlocked.
However, Boeing’s formal request to contending sites stipulates that a deepwater port is “desirable” rather than essential.
Apparently Boeing believes it’s feasible to bring in all its 777X parts either by air or by road.
Boeing’s 777X request also made clear that any state contending to build the 777X must offer large financial incentives.
While Utah officials won’t provide any details on the specific incentives in its 777X bid, state law allows Gov. Gary Herbert to provide substantial tax credits, tax exemptions and outright grants.
Utah already has among the lowest corporate taxes in the country, and the best economic-growth outlook among all the states in an annual competitiveness ranking compiled by economist Arthur Laffer for the American Legislative Exchange Council, a free-enterprise lobbying group.
Companies expanding in Utah qualify for a 30 percent credit on all new taxes paid to the state, and a sales-tax exemption on new manufacturing equipment.
Firms creating well-paid jobs can receive a grant of up to $3,000 per job, potentially worth as much as $25 million for the 777X project.
The state and local governments in Utah also strive to make the regulatory regime business-friendly.
Stuart Clason, director of economic development for Salt Lake City, said that at the airport site there are “no major environmental or wetland issues.”
For a significant project such as Boeing 777X, Clason said permitting will be fast-tracked and “we’d make sure there are no hiccups.”
Perhaps the most vital requirement for any potential 777X site is the workforce Boeing would have available.
Utah will provide up to $200,000 in “custom-fit training” of employees that could help recruit and screen skilled mechanics.
ATK’s Earl said the company helped nearby Davis Applied Technology College to develop its composites-course curriculum, and all new hires go through initial training there at state expense.
Salt Lake Community College has a “director of corporate solutions,” Mark Poole, who said his job is to make sure the college provides the training that companies need.
“If Boeing wanted, we could put together customized classes just for Boeing,” said Poole.
In this “right-to-work” state, the workers Boeing would get are nonunion and eager, with a rosy view of the company that’s free of the bitterness that has developed through years of union-management confrontation in the Puget Sound region.
Patrick Taylor, 30, one of the trainees in the Salt Lake Community College composites class, is a Boeing employee of almost three years.
“It’s a great company,” said Taylor. “Boeing really takes care of us.”