Wisconsin Aerospace Industry Presents
Strong Growth Opportunity

The ascent of Wisconsin’s aerospace sector continues, with several exciting new developments in recent months, including the acquisition of a Madison-based company by a national leader in spacecraft development, the development of a seed accelerator for aerospace-industry companies, and the expansion of aerospace hubs in three Wisconsin locations.

“There’s just an unbelievable amount of activity in this industry right now in Wisconsin,” says Gail Towers-MacAskill, aerospace sector development manager with the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC). “These new projects will put Wisconsin on the map in the aerospace sector, nationally and internationally.”

iStock_000009372045XSmallThe aerospace industry is projected to grow at a rate of 3 percent annually for the next 20 years, and even during the recent recession, as the nationwide industry contracted by 6 percent, the industry in Wisconsin experienced growth of 56 percent. And there is room for further growth. Aerospace exports make up about 1 percent of Wisconsin’s total exports, but this is the third-largest export category nationally by dollar value.

Wisconsin already has a strong aerospace presence, if on a lower-profile basis. For example, more than 140 Wisconsin companies serve as suppliers to Boeing. The state has a robust supply chain serving the industry. It has the highest employment concentration of any U.S. state in two industries on which aerospace depends—fabricated metal product manufacturing and electrical equipment, appliance and component manufacturing. It also has high concentrations in machinery manufacturing, plastics and rubber products manufacturing, and primary metal manufacturing—meaning that the state has workers with the skills to make what the aerospace industry needs. Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch chairs the manufacturing subcommittee for the Aerospace States Association, thus demonstrating the administration’s commitment to representing the industry at the national level, specifically with reference to manufacturing, where Wisconsin’s established strength lies.

But Wisconsin is also committed to training the high-skilled workers on whom the industry’s advancement relies. The state is home to 17 engineering-related schools, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison recently developed an astronautics program within the School of Engineering whose graduates are highly sought after by companies in the industry. This is a strength across the region. Midwestern states produce 31 percent of all degrees granted annually in the aerospace and aeronautical engineering field. To better leverage this intellectual capital and other regional strengths, WEDC and industry partners are working with our neighbors to develop an aerospace consortium for the Great Lakes region.

Although Wisconsin’s strengths in aerospace may not be widely known, they are starting to come to light with some higher-profile projects. Madison-based Orbital Technologies Inc. (Orbitec) has received multiple contracts from NASA since its founding in 1988. With its lease to the Badger Army Ammunition Plant near Baraboo, Orbitec has been able to test its propulsion systems at an easily accessible site within Wisconsin. The plant was the largest munitions factory in the world during World War II but has been inactive since the Vietnam War and has been undergoing demolition and environmental remediation since it was declared excess property by the military in 1997. Although part of the site will become a recreation area, Orbitec has exclusive access to the testing area, which has been a designated no-fly zone for 75 years. This unique asset has attracted the attention of Sierra Nevada Corp. (SNC), the Nevada-based developer of the Dream Chaser orbital spacecraft. Orbitec was already the prime contractor for developing environmental control and life support systems for the spacecraft; SNC recently announced plans to acquire Orbitec and to add at least 180 jobs in Wisconsin in the next two years, in part through increased use of the Badger Ammunition site for testing.

Jet Air Group, based in Green Bay, is also adding jobs. Founded in 1969, the company initially provided aircraft service and repair. Today, in addition to these services, it offers flight training, aircraft charters, and support services for aircraft using Austin Straubel Airport in Ashwaubenon. The company is nearing completion on a new 34,000-square-foot hangar; this $1.7-million project, supported with a $200,000 loan from WEDC, is expected to allow the company to create six jobs and retain 19 jobs because it will enable Jet Air Group to work on the regional jets of airlines when they require service in Green Bay. Meanwhile, construction has begun on a 65,220-square-foot expansion of the general aviation ramp space at the airport. The $1 million project will provide more parking space for aircraft and an additional connection to the airport’s primary taxiway.

Industrial parks are being developed adjacent to two other Wisconsin airports, to allow the creation of similarly bustling aviation hubs. In Fond du Lac, the Aeronautical Industrial Park is designed to accommodate companies that need airport access for testing their equipment in real-world scenarios. The first tenant, Wausau Equipment, builds snow removal equipment for airports. The industrial park’s operating authority assists with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations regarding airport access, thus easing the path for companies to develop and test their products.

In Oshkosh, the Aviation Industrial Park capitalizes on an existing strength. Since 1969, Oshkosh has hosted EAA AirVenture, a convention that attracts more than half a million people from 60 countries. For a few days, Wittman Regional Airport becomes the busiest airport in the world, as aviation aficionados gather to learn about the latest aircraft and innovations and talk airplanes with people from around the world. The convention, which features daily air shows, aerobatics and pyrotechnics, nightly concerts, feature films, forums, workshops, demonstrations, and activities for the whole family, takes place July 28-Aug. 3 this year.

Since 2007, AeroInnovate, an aviation and aerospace networking and consulting enterprise launched at UW-Oshkosh, has been working to bolster innovation and collaboration in the industry. Now, AeroInnovate is in talks with WEDC to develop a seed accelerator for aerospace-sector companies. And the Wisconsin Aerospace Consortium, an organization for executives, industry leaders, and entrepreneurs (recently founded with WEDC support) is working to develop an aviation trade show that would only increase Oshkosh’s prominence in aviation circles.

Two major aerospace trade shows are currently held each year—but neither one takes place in the United States. EAA AirVenture is considered a consumer show; France and the United Kingdom host the trade shows. This new trade show could potentially be scheduled to take place just before or just after AirVenture, to capitalize on the consumer show’s high attendance and allow people to attend both.

With these new developments, the broad and diverse set of Wisconsin companies already working in and supporting the aerospace sector only seems destined to grow further. Three years ago, when WEDC set out to take stock of all Wisconsin companies working in aerospace, the number was surprisingly high—190 companies—since many of the companies supply other industries too, and do not specifically describe themselves as aerospace companies. As the sector thrives, Wisconsin’s achievements in aerospace are bound to attract notice—no longer will the state fly under the radar.

(August 2014)