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Washington aerospace companies celebrate Airbus test flight (quietly)

Bob Edme
The Associated Press

Each maiden voyage of a Boeing airplane has been cause for much celebration in Washington state. But now there’s a big chunk of the local aerospace industry that also supplies Boeing’s main rival, Airbus. So when a new Airbus plane takes to the skies – like the A350 earlier today – a large contingent of workers here in Boeing’s backyard watches with pride.

Practically spitting distance from Boeing’s Everett plant that builds wide-body jets is another factory. This one is owned by a Mukilteo company called ElectroImpact.

Ben Hempstead is an engineer and chief of staff for ElectroImpact. He gives a tour as noisy machines cut pieces of metal that will eventually become other machines. Those tools, when they’re finished, are used to put together the A350 wings at an Airbus plant in North Wales.

Supplying archrivals?

The A350 is a fuel-efficient competitor to Boeing’s 787 and 777. Just on the other side of the factory, ElectroImpact is working on a Boeing project. It’s a tricky business doing work for two archrivals and protecting their intellectual property.

"We’ve got barriers and cordoned off stuff, so we don’t intermingle," Hempstead said. "Customers don’t like to see competitors’ products nearby."

His engineers working on a project for Airbus don’t even talk to their colleagues working on a Boeing assignment.

Psychological hurdle

But that’s what a company has to do to wean itself off of just one customer and grow. Still, it took some time before Washington aerospace supply companies made that leap. Hempstead says for a lot of people here it was a psychological hurdle to sell to Boeing’s rivals.

"I remember a time when business owners here viewed Boeing as the customer and everyone else as the enemy," he said. "Even some of our suppliers, I would call and say, `Hey, I’d like to buy a pump to include in my equipment that I’m shipping to Europe,' and one response literally was, `Why would you want to sell something to the Europeans?'"

Credit Ashley Gross / KPLU
Ben Hempstead of ElectroImpact in Mukilteo

But selling to the Europeans just makes sense. When Boeing has a downcycle, you sell to Airbus. Now almost 40 percent of Washington aerospace companies supply Airbus.

The new A350 has business class seats made by Jamco in Everett. Esterline in Everett makes some of the plane’s switches and engine sensors. Zodiac/IDD in Redmond makes the plane’s weather radar control panels.

No champagne

Hempstead says his team doesn’t break out champagne when a new plane like the A350 takes to the skies, but they do pay close attention.

"There will be a palpable collective sigh of relief all around the planet whenever a new aircraft takes to the skies," he said.

I asked him if ElectroImpact got pushback from Boeing when they began courting Airbus business.

`Sensitive political topic'

"I think that that would be a very sensitive political topic to discuss," Hempstead said.

But times have changed. A Boeing spokesman says having independent suppliers that work with other airplane makers is good for the industry. And now Washington state actively works to land more Airbus business here.

Alex Pietsch heads the governor’s aerospace office. He says he’ll meet with Airbus executives during the Paris Air Show next week.

"Airbus has told us that they spent $13 billion in the United States in 2012 and their goal is to grow that U.S. spend up to $20 billion by 2020," Pietsch said.

Bellevue supplier

The Airbus supply chain also reaches into a small factory in a Bellevue office park.

Credit Ashley Gross / KPLU
Bruce Maxwell of Luma Technologies

That's where Bruce Maxwell’s 10-person company Luma Technologies makes flat plastic pieces that sit on top of control panel lights in the A350 cockpit. He’s been in the industry for decades, in the early days, selling mostly to Boeing.

He says back then, no one would have expected that so many Washington companies would be proud to see an Airbus plane lift off for the first time.

"None of us 10, 20 years ago would have thought this would be such a global business," Maxwell said.

`Where's my revenue?'

But now he sells to a French company that sells to an American company that sells to Airbus.

"So it doesn’t so much matter who’s what or where, it’s - where’s my revenue?" Maxwell said.

These days, he doesn’t have to root for Boeing over Airbus or Airbus over Boeing. And increasingly the same is true for many companies in Washington state.

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.