Column by Sagar Patel, President, Aircraft Turbine Systems for Woodward
Ninety miles northwest of Chicago lies the city of Rockford, the hub of a region of opportunity now building on its legacy of expertise to position itself as a world leader in innovative aerospace technology and leading-edge precision manufacturing.
As would any multinational corporation planning for its future, Woodward, Inc. undertook a complex and comprehensive strategy to accommodate their recent growth.
We considered many locations throughout the world for the new aircraft fuel systems manufacturing campus. We took a deep dive into our analysis of compensation, benefits, utilities, insurance costs, taxes, fees, supply chain strength and the dozens of additional data points that drive this type of expansion decision with decades of implications. The economic benefits of Illinois, and the Rockford region specifically, were comparable to or better than other locations we were considering.
At the conclusion of that planning process in 2012, and with no hesitation, Woodward, Inc. ultimately decided the best decision for our customers, shareholders and members was to invest more than $300 million in a new plant in the Rockford region. The State of Illinois, the communities in the Rockford region, and all of our partners and suppliers were exceptionally supportive as we undertook the process of expansion. They went out of their way to help us complete the campus under our budget and on time.
Undertaking such a high-stakes investment was driven by a legacy of innovation first developed by our founder, Amos Woodward. He staked a claim in Rockford and made a home for himself and our company more than 146 years ago. There were many factors that led to our decision, and all hinge on the supportive and receptive atmosphere the Rockford region extends to all levels of industry. Our Rock Cut Campus opened in 2015 and will continue to play a key role in Woodward’s strength and success for decades to come.
As we begin to fully staff our new facility, recruiting and retaining top-flight talent is a top priority. Designing and manufacturing highly-complex fuel systems for aircraft engines requires excellence in engineering and a large employment pool from which to draw. Illinois and the surrounding Midwestern states provide that talent, helping the Rockford region develop into one of the nation’s key aerospace clusters.
Not only is the workforce among the most capable in the nation; that workforce can now be educated locally as we work to grow and maintain our own talent. Northern Illinois University (NIU) and Rock Valley College (RVC), both institutions with strong programs in engineering and manufacturing technology, have partnered to launch a new four-year engineering degree that can be completed locally for less than $40,000—that’s less than the cost of one year in other similar programs across the country. NIU engineering and technology programs consistently rank in Top 50 in the US.
It’s important to cultivate that crop of talent at an early age. We are heavily involved with local schools, as we educate students on the opportunities in engineering and help transform the image of manufacturing from a “greasy” business to a “clean, high tech and fun” challenge. With mentorships and internships, we’re able to introduce them to the cutting-edge technology involved in our business; providing a benefit to our organization, for sure, but helping hundreds of other advanced manufacturing companies in our region as well.
Supply chain performance and logistics are also critical in our industry. The Rockford region is well-suited to serve a wide variety of companies, with more than 100 aerospace companies alone located within a 60-mile radius. Easy access to air transportation, interstate highways, rail and intermodal facilities have played a role in our success and were key factors in our decision to expand here.
Another key player in our development as an aerospace cluster is the continued growth of the Chicago Rockford International Airport (RFD). A $40 million Maintenance and Repair Operation (MRO) facility being built by AAR Corporation will open in 2016, making RFD a key player in AAR’s business strategy. A new facility to house the aviation maintenance program at RFD run by Rock Valley College recently opened and will produce dozens of talented students ready to enter the workforce, whether at the MRO or at other related companies. Passenger service; a 10,000-foot runway that can take off and land any aircraft in existence; an upcoming $50 million terminal expansion; and the continued performance of the UPS Air Hub, the company’s second largest, all illustrate the critical role that RFD plays in our region’s economic infrastructure.
The Rockford region, like many in the nation, was hit hard by the economic downturn. Now, we are bouncing back with strength, resilience, and a renewed focus on the attributes that make this region a logical location for business growth and expansion. Advanced manufacturing and engineering, combined with a culture of innovation, creates jobs and contributes to our region’s GDP like few other industries can. Woodward is exceptionally proud of our strategic investment in the Rockford region. We know how important a culture of continuous improvement is to our investors and stakeholders, and we look forward to growing and thriving in the years to come.
Sagar Patel is President of Aircraft Turbine Systems at Woodward, Inc. a global leader in fuel, combustion, fluid, actuation, and electronic control systems for the aerospace and industrial markets. He also serves as Chairman of the Board of the Rockford Area Economic Development Council.