'Most advanced aerospace facility in the world' taking off in LaPorte

2014-05-29T17:00:00Z 2014-07-07T15:11:09Z 'Most advanced aerospace facility in the world' taking off in LaPorteJoseph S. Pete joseph.pete@nwi.com, (219) 933-3316 nwitimes.com

LAPORTE | One of the world's largest aluminum makers plans to build the "most advanced aerospace facility on earth" in LaPorte to meet a soaring demand for jet engine parts.

Airlines have been placing a record number of orders for commercial planes, to the point where there is a nearly decadelong wait list.

Alcoa hopes to take advantage of the booming demand for more planes, which has resulted in a backlog of more than 10,600 aircraft at Boeing and Airbus, by pumping $100 million into a new factory in LaPorte. Alcoa Howmet already employs 470 workers at a 200,000-square-foot factory on Lincolnway that has made integral compressor and turbine investment castings for the aerospace industry since 1957.

The New York City-based company, which had sales of $23 billion last year, plans to build a second, 320,000-square-foot plant in LaPorte that would produce nickel-based superalloy jet engine parts. The investment is expected to result in 329 new jobs by 2019.

"We are able to announce a great company is making the largest jobs and capital announcement in LaPorte history," Gov. Mike Pence said.

Pence, LaPorte Mayor Blair Milo and Alcoa executives gathered Thursday to announce the project, which is underway.

"The city of LaPorte is proud to celebrate this momentous occasion with the Alcoa team," Milo said. "Over the years, LaPorte and Alcoa have developed a strong partnership due to Alcoa's industry-leading status as well as its leadership role within our community. We are excited to grow that partnership in lockstep as Alcoa continues to enjoy growth and success."

Alcoa will need workers with advanced manufacturing backgrounds, such as CNC operators, executive Eric Roegner said. 

The company, which is already a leader in jet engine airfoils, currently makes similar parts on a smaller scale for business and regional airline jets, but wants to broaden its reach to include large commercial airliners such as narrow-body planes and military aircraft such as Black Hawk helicopters. The new factory will be able to crank out parts that are nearly 60 percent larger than what Alcoa can make today, enabling Alcoa to make parts for wide-body aircraft such as the Boeing 747 as well.

Alcoa, which smelts aluminum but also invests heavily in making finished aluminum products, is targeting a market that is on an skyward trajectory. The aerospace business is global, and demand has been taking off because of growth in China and other Asian countries, where a broadening middle class wants to travel more, Roegner said. 

Airlines also have been looking to replace older planes. Fuel prices are a major fixed cost that the airlines are trying to control by by making their fleets newer, lighter and more fuel-efficient.

"Aerospace growth is soaring and Alcoa is ramping up our downstream capabilities to capture that demand," said Alcoa Chairman and CEO Klaus Kleinfeld. "Applying our industry-leading expertise, this facility will deliver highly engineered parts our customers need to build some of the best selling engines and at high volumes."

Existing customer contracts support the investment in the new LaPorte plant, which will make products such as turbine exhaust cases, compressed air injection inlets, high-pressure compressor stators and exit guide vanes. The factory will make heavy use of state-of-the-art technologies, including robotics and the 3D printing of prototypes for jet engine makers as they tinker with their designs.

Digital X-rays will allow Alcoa to provide extensive and real-time quality assurance to its customers, Roegner said. Automated casting furnaces will have advanced controls to help the company meet exact production specifications, and blue light technology will provide more thorough inspection data.

"This is hands-down going to be the most advanced aerospace facility in the world," Roegner said. 

Alcoa is getting up to $7.1 million in tax breaks from LaPorte over the next 10 years, and up to $4 million from the Indiana Economic Development Corp.

Construction is expected to be finished by the end of next year.

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