Friday, September 6, 2013

Baja aerospace forum showcases potential

 — An intriguing mix of visitors passed through Baja California’s new metropolitan convention center on Thursday, including a San Diego councilman, Thailand’s ambassador to Mexico, members of the Mexican and Colombian air forces — and a group of young, low-income students from Tijuana launching their first satellite.
The occasion was Baja California’s fourth Aerospace Supplier Forum, a chance to showcase the state’s potential in a small but growing industry in Mexico. Baja California, already a leading area in that country for aerospace, is poised for further growth as it draws new investments and its schools train more engineers who specialize in the field.
Leaders of the sector tout the state’s proximity to California as an important advantage. They also emphasize that an expanded aerospace industry in Baja California would likely bring benefits for San Diego and Imperial counties as well.
“It’s a unique confluence of capabilities,” said Christina Luhn, executive director of the CaliBaja Bi-National Mega-Region.
Overall employment in Baja California’s maquiladora industry is close to 236,000 workers, according to state figures. The aerospace sector accounts for a fairly small portion of that total — about 16,000 jobs, most of them in Tijuana and Mexicali. But proponents said the industry offers higher-paying, higher-skilled jobs that can help the state evolve from the traditional maquiladora assembly-plant model.
Currently, there are 64 certified aerospace companies in Baja California. They make everything from harnesses to overhead compartments for commercial airplanes to drones and parts of satellite systems. Tomas Sibaja, executive president of the state’s aerospace cluster, said the coming months are expected to bring key growth.
A dozen existing companies are planning a total of nearly $300 million in expansion projects, while 30 others are undergoing aerospace certification programs that would allow them to join the region’s aerospace cluster.
“If we do our homework correctly, in less than a year we’ll jump to 94 (companies),” Sibaja said. “That’s a huge leap.”
Thursday’s event drew record participation, with 18 larger aerospace businesses and 150 smaller suppliers — including many that have facilities on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. Conversations buzzed amid dozens of booths showcasing a wide range of aerospace products, while suppliers and potential customers met in private sessions.
“The idea is to grow as much as we can,” said Cruz Maldonado, president of BAP Aerospace de Mexico, which specializes in metal finishing. The company, an offshoot of Barry Avenue Plating Company in Los Angeles, opened its Tijuana facility last year and now employs 18 people there.
The aerospace industry is made up of a complex network of customers and suppliers, and a critical issue for Baja California has been increasing its regional supply base.
The state’s aerospace sector dates back to the 1960s, with the establishment of Rockwell Collins and Switch Luz.
Baja California is “probably the oldest ecosystem in aerospace in Mexico,” said Flavio Olivieri, executive director of the Tijuana Economic Development Corporation.
Despite strides in recent years, members of the industry said they have been overlooked by government promoters, and one of the aims of the forum was to highlight the state’s potential. “At least in the eyes of our federal government and the eyes of national news, Baja Calfiornia wasn’t really a player,” Olivieri said.
Internationally-known companies that participated in the forum included UTC Aerospace Systems, Eurocopter, Hutchison Seal, Honeywell, Eaton, Zodiac and Skyworks.
Parker Hannifin, which manufactures seals for automobiles and aircraft at its Tijuana facility, is looking to expand its Mexican supply base, said Jorge David, a supply chain manager for the company. “We can say that 95 percent of our supply base comes from California, and it’s time for us to start looking at Mexican suppliers, if possible.”
Foreign dignitaries attending the event’s opening included San Diego Councilman Kevin Faulconer and Mark Cafferty, president and CEO of the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corporation, and Jo Marie Diamond, president & CEO of the East County Economic Development Corporation.
The event also drew dozens of young people — from aerospace engineering students at the Autonomous University of Baja California to elementary schoolchildren who built a satellite under the tutelage Eduardo Guizar, a Mexican engineer and NASA consultant.

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