Arkansas works for aerospace

When Bob Lilly assumed the title of senior manager, procurement, in 2007, his managers at Dassault Falcon Jet’s completion center in Little Rock, Arkansas, told him they expected they’d be buying him lots of airline tickets to places like Wichita, Kansas, Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Dallas. Those are among the cities where you’ll find the large, well-known aviation subcontractors who supply the industry with parts and components for completing interiors of business jets.

But Lilly didn’t see a need to travel that far. “How about you just pay to fill my car with gas, instead?” he asked his managers.

A 1978 graduate of the University of Central Arkansas, native Arkansan Lilly knew what might not have been so obvious to Dassault’s Paris-based leadership. He not only understood that Arkansas had a wealth of creative, industrious small manufacturers who could make the parts and pieces Dassault needed, he knew where to find them.

So rather than plying the four winds via the airlines, Lilly traversed the state on four wheels, seeking out modestly sized shops and factories where future-oriented entrepreneurs were taking chances on cutting-edge technologies, such as additive manufacturing (aka 3D printing).

Typical of those companies is CMT (Craft Manufacturing and Tooling), based in Hot Springs. Founded in 1988, CMT has evolved into a fully integrated aerospace and defense component supplier. Its capabilities include machining, sheet metal, metal bonded panels, prepreg fiberglass, vacuum forming, CAD/CAM tooling, chemical processing and paint, and aluminum heat treating.

CMT supports prime contractors; original equipment manufacturers; Tier 2 suppliers; and maintenance, repair, and overhaul suppliers for a wide range of military aircraft. You can also find CMT’s Arkansas-manufactured parts and pieces on business jets such as Bombardier’s Global series; the Dassault Falcon 7X, 8X, and 2000, and upcoming 6X; and Gulfstream’s G550. In addition, CMT manufactures assembly-line parts and aftermarket spares for Boeing’s B777 airliners.

Another Arkansas success story is Galley Support Innovations, whose CEO, Gina Radke, also serves as president of Arkansas Aerospace and Defense Alliance (AADA). She and her husband bought the product line of a struggling aviation interior hardware supplier in California, moved the business to their home state of Arkansas, and are now among the go-to names in supplying business jet galleys and cabinets with FAA-approved hardware. And while that might not seem as imposing as, say, building jet engines, avionics, or landing gear, Radke can say that her company’s products are flying on many of the top-tier multimillion-dollar business jets flying around the globe.

There is a downside to the nimble flexibility that entrepreneurial companies enjoy. At the 2018 Arkansas Aerospace and Defense Alliance (AADA) summit in Hot Springs, one supplier told me that he had invested significant company resources in tooling and machinery for a new technology in anticipation of big orders from one of his large customers. But when the FAA approval process dragged on and on, the supplier was finally forced to abandon its foray into the technology, taking a stinging financial loss when he sold the machinery. “That’s one of the risks,” he says.

But Arkansas businesses have had far more successes than failures in aerospace manufacturing, and Chad Causey, executive director of the AADA, thinks he understands why. “For one thing, it’s part of the culture. We have always had a strong manufacturing base in Arkansas—small manufacturers supplying large manufacturers. The small companies tend to be innovative and flexible and have a strong work ethic.”

Causey also points to the geographic advantage. Arkansas sits within easy reach of aerospace manufacturing hubs such as Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Wichita, but also convenient for Gulf Coast locations, such as Airbus in Mobile, Alabama. “There’s Boeing in St. Louis, and many others,” he adds.

A lot of the buzz at the AADA summit centered on plans to exhibit at this year’s Farnborough Airshow in the U.K. and at the National Business Aviation Association trade show in Orlando, Florida. The alliance is in the process of designing and building its booth display, and Causey looks forward to bringing the Arkansas aerospace manufacturing story to the rest of the aviation world.