News Column

Mexico Takes Flight as Hub for Aerospace Industry

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In one part of Queretaro in central Mexico, technicians overhaul commercial aircraft engines and landing gear. Across town, engineers assemble fuselages for one of the most modern business aircraft on earth, the Learjet 85.

Industrializing nations like Brazil and China get a lot of attention for their thriving aerospace sectors. But Mexico's aerospace industry, too, has gone wheels up and taken flight, with a lot less world notice.

More than 260 aerospace companies now operate in Mexico, exporting some $4.3 billion in aircraft and parts last year. The Mexican government has set a target of $12 billion in such exports by 2020, a figure that would surpass aerospace exports from Brazil and Spain.

Major clusters of aerospace companies have settled in the Tijuana-Mexicali corridor along the U.S. border, in the city of Chihuahua in northwest Mexico, and surrounding this high desert hub in the geographical center of the country. Smaller clusters have formed in Monterrey in the northeast and in the port city of Guaymas on the Gulf of California in Sonora state.

Local officials are hoping that one day Queretaro (pronounced keh-REH-tah-roh) will be uttered in the same breath as aviation centers like Seattle and Wichita, Kan., in the United States, Montreal in Canada, and Toulouse in France.

Unlike other up-and-coming aerospace powers, Mexico neither supplies its own defense needs nor produces its own aircraft. But just about every component imaginable for jetliners and helicopters can be manufactured in Mexico today, including jet turbines and fuselages.

It's only a matter of time before the nation may design its own aircraft, experts here say. Dreams already are taking shape.

In an office in the National Aeronautics University of Queretaro, Rector Jorge Gutierrez de Velasco leans back and reflects on Mexico's aerospace achievements.

"History tells us that clusters take decades to take shape. Then as they develop, advancing along with Mexican engineering, development processes, educational and economic capacities and so forth, maybe we can talk about producing an Aztec Uno or a Huitzilopochtli," Gutierrez said, reaching for possible names for an aircraft from his nation's history prior to the Spanish conquest.

First off, though, he said the nation wants to see a new foreign aircraft, no matter the brand, take off with 50 percent of its components "Made in Mexico."

Big U.S. companies with operations in Mexico include Hawker Beechcraft, Gulfstream Aerospace, General Electric, Textron and Honeywell. France's Safran Group, Canada's Bombardier Aerospace, Netherlands-based Fokker and Spain's Aernnova, a major supplier to Airbus, Bombardier and Brazil's Embraer, also have set up production in Mexico.

Some 30 foreign companies have operations in this city of 1.8 million people.

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"A great point in Mexico is that it's really easy to work with authorities. When we suggest something, they listen and they help in any way they can," said Claude Gobenceaux, director general of Messier Services Americas, a division of Safran, and head of the Queretaro aerospace cluster, an informal industry group.

As an example, he said, foreign companies in Queretaro discovered that while local engineers were numerous, technicians who knew how to operate precision machining equipment were not. The National Aeronautics University set up a program.

"It's quite interesting that a university also agreed to train technicians," Gobenceaux said.

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Mexico has an edge in human capital. On a per capita basis, it graduates three times more engineers than the United States. Some 30 percent of Mexico's 745,000 university students are enrolled in engineering and technology fields, and 114,000 of them graduate yearly. Technicians, though, often have to be trained in-house in specialized processes even after receiving training elsewhere.

So far, industries with operations in Mexico have focused on assembly of aircraft structures, precision machining, overhauling engines and landing gear, laying out of electrical systems, and assembly of composite components.

"There are companies like Zodiac in Baja California that are putting together interiors of aircraft using composites," said Manuel Sandoval Rios of ProMexico, a trade promotion agency. "We are moving into complex materials such as carbon."

Currently, Mexico's aerospace sector employs 31,000 workers. The goal is to have 110,000 jobs in aerospace by 2020, Sandoval said.

That compares with some 335,000 jobs in auto manufacturing and auto parts.

As the aerospace sector expands, authorities hope to expand the number of foreign and local companies that provide parts. Only a few Mexican companies now manufacture key components.

"The challenge now, just as it once was in the automotive sector, is to ramp up the supply chain and, when possible, develop national suppliers," Sandoval said.

Authorities encourage Mexican companies to work with specialized metals, like titanium and molybdenum, and develop thermal coatings for aircraft parts.

In some cases, auto parts firms made a transition. One of those is Grupo Kuo of Mexico City, only three hours to the south of here.

"They make auto transmissions, and they did the design for the Corvette transmission. What we helped them do is create a specialized aerospace division ... that has grown rapidly and supplies both Safran and Eaton," Sandoval said.

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The Canadian firm Bombardier, the No. 3 civilian aircraft manufacturer in the world behind Boeing and Airbus, has grown its Mexico operations rapidly. After a worldwide search, it chose Queretaro in 2006 because of its location, low cost of labor and the industrial capabilities of Mexico.

"The time zone was also very important," said Real Gervais, who until his retirement earlier this month was vice president of Bombardier Aerospace's Mexico operations. Queretaro is in the central time zone, making its workday coincide with those of Bombardier's other key operations in Wichita, Montreal and Toronto. "If you have an issue, you don't have a 12- or 14-hour time difference," he said.

Since breaking ground on a cactus-strewn lot next to the Queretaro airport, Bombardier's operations have mushroomed, now employing 1,800 people.

"We cover everything from the lower end of business aircraft to high-end Learjets and on to the Challenger," Gervais said.

Bombardier's production in Mexico includes flight-control components such as rudders, stabilizers and elevators as well as wings and electrical wiring. It now builds major portions of fuselages for its Global business jet line here. By next year, the state-of-the-art Learjet 85 composite aircraft, including its wings, will come out of a plant here before being shipped to Wichita for final assembly and testing.

"Thirty percent of the total Learjet 85 will be put together in Queretaro," Gervais said. "Some wing panels are being brought from Belfast."

Bombardier ramped up quickly because it forecast a steady growth in the appetite for business jets around the world.

"The market is telling us that there will be 15,000 business aircraft needed over the next 20 years," Gervais said.

To end delays in exporting aircraft parts overseas, Mexico has signed bilateral aviation safety agreements with more than 40 countries, meaning that the parts no longer have to be inspected internationally before being shipped off.

International pressures in the $450 billion aerospace industry to produce more efficient aircraft and end backlogs for major airlines may provide Mexico with its biggest edge.

"The global industry faces stresses because it can't meet demand from the major airlines, and the big companies have to look for more efficient and competitive, low-cost suppliers," Sandoval said.

"That's where Mexico enters into the equation."

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