Monday, September 17 2018
By Greg Canfield, Secretary, Alabama Department of Commerce
Thanks to a long manufacturing heritage, Alabama is known for making first-class products – high-quality steel and other metals, automobiles sold around the world, advanced aircraft and aerospace components, along with much more.
But what about those revolutionary new technologies and processes that are beginning to shake up factory floors and other businesses? Alabama is ready for the challenge.
For manufacturers, in particular, the future is being shaped by disruptive technologies such as 3-D printing, or additive manufacturing, as the process is called in the industry.
Already, companies including Carpenter Technology Corp., a producer of ultra-premium alloys used by aerospace and energy companies, and GE Aviation are making major moves in Alabama to advance additive technologies.
Carpenter has invested $575 million in its Alabama operations, which include a 500,000-square-foot manufacturing facility and a production center for superalloy powders used in additive manufacturing.
At this summer’s Farnborough International Airshow, Carpenter announced plans to invest an additional $52 million in Alabama to open an Emerging Technology Center that will focus on additive manufacturing technology development. Eventually, this R&D center will also focus on soft magnetics and meltless titanium powder.
In an official announcement, Stephen Peskosky, Carpenter’s vice president of corporate development, stressed the significance of the company’s expanded operations in Alabama.
“Our relationship with the state of Alabama has flourished since we selected Limestone County for our forging facility in 2011,” he said. “And now, with the addition of the Emerging Technology Center, our Athens, Alabama, location plays a pivotal role in many of the key markets we serve.”
Meanwhile, GE Aviation’s factory in Auburn has been mass producing a complex jet engine fuel nozzle using 3-D printing technologies for more than a year. The nozzle is 25 percent lighter and as much as five times more durable than a conventional nozzle made from 20 different parts.
GE has invested well over $100 million in the Auburn site, the first plant in the aerospace industry to engage in high-volume production of an additively manufactured jet propulsion system component.
GE Aviation’s additive manufacturing hub in Alabama is located in an ideal spot.
That’s because Auburn University is becoming known as a research hotbed for additive technologies. The university is making strategic investments to broaden its capabilities in additive manufacturing and building partnerships with organizations such as NASA and companies including GE Aviation.
In March 2018, ASTM International, a global standards organization, selected the Auburn-NASA partnership, along with two other collaborators, for its first Center of Excellence in additive manufacturing. The goal is to create a global innovation hub that advances technical standards, R&D, education and training.
Here’s what Katharine Morgan, president of ASTM International had to say about the initiative: “It’s clear that this new center has the potential to shape the future of industries like aerospace, auto, medical and more.”
That gives you a clear picture of just how revolutionary this technology really is.
At the same time, Alabama is becoming home to the biggest names in the tech world, as well as some promising upstarts.
Earlier this year, Google kicked off construction of a $600 million data center in the north Alabama community of Bridgeport, where the company has received an especially warm welcome.
Mayor David “Bubba” Hughes found a memorable way of summing up the facility’s impact: “No doubt about it — this a game-changer for us.” Indeed, that’s true for the entire state.
Recently, Facebook announced plans for its own $750 million data center in Huntsville that will create more than 100 high-paying jobs. Other data center investment is already beginning to flow in.
In addition, internet retailer Amazon selected Alabama for two projects -- a $30 million “sortation” center in Mobile and a fulfillment center in Bessemer with 1,500 employees working alongside advanced robotics.
It’s also important that Alabama’s homegrown tech companies are thriving.
Shipt, a hugely successful Birmingham startup that focuses on delivering grocery items ordered online, not long ago announced growth plans that call for the creation of more than 880 new jobs.
“Shipt was founded and has flourished in Birmingham, and we would not have reached the success we have today without the continued support of this community,” Founder and CEO Bill Smith said about the expansion. “As a rapidly-growing technology company, we feel fortunate to be able to offer an avenue for creating highly-skilled jobs within Birmingham.”
Shipt’s growth is seen as a catalyst for tech industry expansion in Alabama’s largest metro area. It will also have a massive economic impact: The new jobs are projected to generate $1.1 billion in new payroll in the Birmingham area over 20 years.
I’m optimistic that the company’s expansion will act as signpost pointing other innovative tech companies to the city and to the state, fueling a wave of job creation in highly-technical fields and spurring the formation of new startups.
To keep Alabama’s economy moving forward, it’s critical that the state’s economic development team act strategically to foster the further development of innovation opportunities.
As part of that effort, Alabama has closely engaged with the state’s research universities to fully harness their research expertise in industry recruitment.
A group representing those universities and private research organizations called Alabama EPSCoR is now putting the finishing touches to a new tool that will support the state's efforts.
It’s a digital database that companies and site consultants can use to identify specific research being conducted in Alabama on fields such as composite materials and additive technology that could aid their product development.
The searchable database is another sign that Alabama is prepared to help all kinds of businesses thrive in an environment where advanced and disruptive technologies are beginning to take hold.
Alabama is eager to make its mark on the future.
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