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Local Aerospace Sector Gaining Altitude

Aldergrove company’s growth and multibillion-dollar Boeing contract bode well for a robust sector rebound

By Nelson Bennett

An Aldergrove manufacturer that makes equipment used in airplane assembly expects big benefits from Boeing’s recent announcement of a $22 billion contract with Indonesia’s PT Lion Mentari Airlines.

Senior management with Advanced Integration Technologies Canada (AIT) were at the February 14 to 19 Singapore Airshow when Boeing finalized an order with PT Lion for 230 aircraft.

Other announcements at the airshow included:

•Victoria-based Viking Air’s new order for 15 of the Twin Otter airplanes it builds; and

•Canadian airplane manufacturer Bombardier Inc.’s plans to open a commercial aircraft sales and marketing office in Singapore to serve the Asia-Pacific region.

Boeing and Bombardier are already among AIT’s customers, as are Airbus and Lockheed Martin.

Headquartered in Plano, Texas, AIT runs its Canadian division in Aldergrove and Langley. The company makes the “tooling” – large positioning systems – used in airplane assembly.

AIT already has contracts with Boeing for the laser alignment systems used for the assembly of the Boeing 787. The company recently delivered automated equipment for both body and wing assembly for Boeing’s 787 and Bombardier’s C Series airplanes.

“With respect to the latest Boeing announcement, AIT has received an order to supply the final body join equipment and [is] anticipating that Boeing will continue to select the company to be its prime contractor for the final body join,” AIT sales manager Lazo Turanjanin confirmed in an email from Singapore.

One year ago, David Shellenberg, CEO of Cascade Aerospace and chairman of the Aerospace Industry Association of Canada, told the Vancouver Board of Trade to expect the aerospace sector to double in B.C. and Canada by 2020, based on a global demand for 30,000 new aircraft.

Growth numbers at AIT, Cascade and Viking over the last year confirm those predictions.

In 2008, AIT was forced to lay off more than half its 60 employees because of steep drop in job orders.

“By the end of 2009, things started to turn around and by 2010 we were ramping up,” said Steven Taylor-Lewis, AIT’s general manager.

By the end of 2011, the company was up to 86 employees. Taylor-Lewis said AIT will likely add another 20. AIT’s Canadian head office and 39,000-square-foot assembly shop is in Aldergrove. It also has a 48,000-square-foot fabrication and machine shop at Langley’s Gloucester Industrial Park.

The Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter jet is one of the planes for which AIT supplies assembly equipment. The Canadian government has ordered 65 F-35 fighter jets, at an estimated cost of $16 billion, a figure that is now projected to be significantly under budget.

Pentagon budget cuts and changes to orders of F-35s by other NATO nations are likely to affect the cost and timelines of the Canadian F-35 order, which has prompted Ottawa to review the program. Those kinds of vagaries are what make the aerospace sector so cyclical.

“The industry, especially in B.C., is on a growth curve,” Taylor-Lewis said. “But it’s also quite cyclical. It’s up and down, which is why our workforce tends to vary.”

That ebb and flow can make it tough for companies like AIT to compete with other sectors, like mining, which can offer better job security.

“I would say labour is our biggest concern,” Taylor-Lewis said. “We just started to recruit for welders, and we haven’t had an overwhelming response yet.”

Schellenberg, whose own company has hired 100 new employees over the past year, said the aerospace industry in B.C. is experiencing good growth. He pointed to Viking air as an example.

Viking now has a $350 million backlog of orders for its Twin Otter airplane.

“Viking is a great western Canadian success story,” Schellenberg said. “They’ve rebirthed the Twin Otter, which is a very famous Canadian airplane.” •

Nelson Bennett

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