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Ohio's aerospace industry: the $8 billion powerhouse

Mike Heil, president and chief executive officer of OAI
Mike Heil, president and chief executive officer of OAI - Bob Perkoski
While Ohio is tagged as "The Birthplace of Aviation" on license plates from Toledo to Athens, the designation is more than just a catchphrase.

Ohio's legendary involvement in aerospace started in the early 1900's with the Wright brothers and their Dayton bicycle shop. Since then, Ohio has produced 24 astronauts--more than any other state, including Neil Armstrong and John Glenn. Today, the Buckeye State continues to be a formidable leader in the aerospace industry, which produces an annual economic impact of more than $8 billion.
"Ever since the Wright brothers invented controlled power flight and the U.S. Army (Air Corps) made Dayton their hub for aviation research and acquisition, Ohio has been a leading state, if not the leading state, in aerospace research and development," says Mike Heil, the president and chief executive officer of the Ohio Aerospace Institute. "Ohio is a strong player in the supply chain of parts and components for airplanes, missiles and space systems," he adds.
"Wright Patterson Air Force Base has become the world's leading aerospace research and development center," says Heil. "We're also fortunate to have the NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland. (The state's aerospace industry) benefits from the proximity to those research centers." Heil says WPAFB makes a $5 billion impact on the state and NASA Glenn Research Center brings in another $1.3 billion. He also estimates that more than $2.13 billion in production parts are sold from more than 1,200 Ohio companies and that the aerospace industry employs more than 130,000 workers in the state.
Investing in research on the wings of public and private collaboration
Industry advocates, however, aren't resting on those laurels. To expand the state's aerospace footprint, General Electric, a world leader in the development of jet engines, components and integrated systems for commercial and military aircraft, has partnered with the Ohio Third Frontier to create research centers at the University of Dayton and the University of Cincinnati. The Electrical Power Integrated Systems (EPIS) Center in Dayton will be built courtesy of $55 million from GE and a $7.6 million capital grant from the OTF. Cincinnati received more than $40 million from GE along with a $5 million capital grant from OTF to build the General Electric Aviation Research Center in Evendale.
"A lot of today's emerging technologies were just backroom discussions among scientists playing at the fringes 15 years ago. Now they're being mainstreamed into the field," says Dr. Dale Carlson, the general manager for technology strategy at GE. "We want to find the (next wave of) emerging technologies that are going to make a difference (tomorrow)."
Taking off with education
The research centers will provide an important link between academia and Ohio's economic ecosystem. GE spokesman Rick Kennedy says the Cincinnati research facility will focus on three areas: low emission combustion, ceramic matrix composites and energy in thermal management.
"There's a lot of cool stuff that is going on here," Kennedy says. "We're in a whole new generation of collaborating with institutions like Dayton and UC. It's critical to the state."
"We know how to take seminal technology and do the sort of things that are needed to insure the safety, the reliability, and the maintainability (of the new product) is as good--if not better--than the product they replace," Carlson adds.
David Linger, the chief executive officer of the University of Cincinnati Research Institute, says the new aviation research center will help the university in three ways: by supporting all the local, regional and national companies that rely on UC, by commercializing the university's technology and finally, by providing a cooperative learning experience for students.
"Becoming a part of this entity was quite a draw for me to come back from the corporate world," says Linger who held leadership roles with GE Aviation since 2004, including director of technology partnerships and commercialization. "Students are working on real world problems and making a real impact, so they're more enthusiastic about their career choice. Having students that are able to contribute to solving the problems of a company from their first day on the job is a huge value to that company."
Cincinnati and Dayton are two of the 10 Ohio universities that offer doctorates in aerospace. Others on the list include the Air Force Institute of Technology (AFIT), the University of Akron, Case Western Reserve University (CWRU), Cleveland State University, the Ohio State University, Ohio University, the University of Toledo, and Wright State University. Five of those schools earned an entry on the 2013 U.S. News & World Reports' list of top 50 graduate schools in aerospace, aeronautical and astronautical engineering including Ohio State, Cincinnati, AFIT, CWRU, and Dayton.
The private sector: another piece of the pie in the sky
Ohio's interest in aerospace goes beyond classrooms and research. The private sector is also in on the high-flying action with companies such as Kelly Aerospace Thermal Systems, which designs air conditioning systems for general aviation aircraft as well as deicing systems for wind turbines that are used for turning wind power into electricity.
"There's not a lot of difference between a wind turbine blade and an aircraft blade. There's high and low pressure on either side of the blade and with the least amount of moisture in the air at the right temperature, you create ice," says Walter Dodge, Kelly's director of operations. "The ice can fly off and cause serious injury and structural damage. If it gets out of balance, the wind turbine has to shut down and is not able to generate electricity. If we can keep the blades free and clear of ice, there's no question we'll be able to generate more electricity over a period of time."
In 2009, the Willoughby-based company received $350,000 from the OTF to help fund commercialization of its wind turbine de-icing system. Dodge says the money allowed Kelly to further develop and market their product in Denmark, Sweden, Canada and several other foreign markets. "That $350,000 allowed us to get there," Dodge says. "There was a void out there (in deicing of wind turbines). Nobody else was doing it. The grant allowed (our company) to go out and develop the technology and we went after that with a vengeance."
Flying high--with competition
Just as it was challenged for its "First in Aviation" moniker, Ohio is being pushed to keep its share of the aerospace economic pie. While aerospace companies like Kelly call Ohio home, in 2009, Boeing chose Charleston, S.C. for the final assembly plant for its 787 Dreamliners. Last April, Airbus broke ground for its first U.S. airplane-assembly plant in Mobile, Ala.
"There is competition (for courting the aerospace industry) from coast to coast," Heil says. "Plus there has been tremendous growth in commercial aviation (production) in China, India, the Pacific, and in the Middle East."
Carlson adds that Ohio needs to continually offer incentives and funding to keep the aerospace industry in the state. "The one-time investments, such as the grants we've gotten for the EPIS and UC research center, are really appreciated but it has to be part of a continuous spectrum of funding," he says. "There are people in other states and other countries who want what we have. People out there are offering great incentives to take your research and development as well as your physical assets elsewhere.
"When we think about the future, if we could look back fondly at GE and say, 'Look how great we are. We're Number One in the market place. We don't need to do anything but what we're doing,' that is a model for failure," says Carlson. "You are never done in this business. We have to be in a continuous innovation cycle to stay competitive."
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