With federal grant money, stakeholders mint a plan to pitch northeast Wisconsin as aerospace hub
A report years in the making identifies 3-D printing and renewed training of engineers and others as the ticket to attracting a long-sought aviation industry to the Fox Valley.
A blueprint for building an aviation industry are outlined in a Greater Oshkosh Economic Development Corporation (GO-EDC) report on how to diversify the Fox Valley economy in the wake of layoffs in 2012 and 2013. This upstart agency took the reins of the project after stakeholders cut ties with an aviation consulting firm charged with carrying the project to completion.
Oshkosh for years has been working to transform the churn of the Experimental Aircraft Association’s annual AirVenture convention into a lasting economic driver. But a round of layoffs at the state’s largest federal contractor brought money and inertia to these plans.
All this began after layoffs at Oshkosh Corp., a U.S. Department of Defense contractor, left more than 1,400 unemployed in Oshkosh and Neenah in 2012 and 2013, an economic loss of about $90 million across the region.
This sudden downturn at the company set off alarm bells with the U.S. Department of Defense Office of Economic Adjustment (OEA), and the agency notified the East Central Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission that it would qualify for a grant to re-train workers and diversify the broader economy.
So with $2 million in federal funds, East Central led this charge to bring an aviation industry to Oshkosh, Fond du Lac, Appleton and Green Bay. An ongoing second phase of this project would implement the plans outlined in GO-EDC’s report.
Jennifer Jensen, of NextJen Studios, who contributed to this report, said pitching Oshkosh alone as a site for aerospace companies to settle in isn’t as compelling as pitching the Fox Valley and its deep manufacturing skill set. The ultimate goal, she said, is to emerge with an economy diversified with aerospace.
“Each airport offers something unique,” Jensen said. “If we look at our region as stretching from Fond du Lac to Green Bay, that’s a significant piece of land to develop.”
Need for 3-D printing, engineers
Local stakeholders have long sought to bring aerospace here, because many of the skills that industry demands overlap with skills of workers already in the region, said Jason White, Greater Oshkosh Economic Development Corporation CEO.
In the Fox Valley, more than 20 percent of workers are employed in manufacturing, according to GO-EDC’s report. So supporting the industry isn’t isolated to Oshkosh, White said.
“Every airport in the Fox Valley has development land available,” he said. “Each airport has agreed to collaborate regionally. Everybody knows the importance of taking a regional approach.”
GO-EDC concludes that investing in additive manufacturing, or 3-D printing, could position the region to attract aerospace companies, which adapted many of these skills early. According to the GO-EDC report, 3D-printing will grow from a $400 million industry in 2014 to a $1.2 billion industry by 2023.
Though companies like Boeing, General Electric and Lockheed Martin have deployed 3D-printing in projects like jet and satellite-building, some Aerospace executives remain skeptical of this process. The report concludes, though, that companies that are slow to adopt may miss this expanding market.
Locally, companies that could supply the aviation industry have not yet invested in 3D-printing, due in-part to fear of meeting federal regulations or investing in this relatively new technology. “Most companies lack a basic understanding of how it could impact the industry and their business and the best way to adopt it,” according to the report.
Another obstacle: just a handful of educational programs in Wisconsin are equipped with 3D-printers, and none use these machines for aviation chiefly. Fox Valley Technical College, in Oshkosh and Appleton, is among three schools in the state that runs a 3D-printer. The college uses the technology to spark student interest in manufacturing.
From more than 100 interviews with aerospace companies, the report finds that the Fox Valley region lacks engineering and research talent to attract aviation companies, despite a skilled workforce and some aviation education programs, like Fox Valley Tech’s S.J. Spanbauer Center, which teaches aviation manufacturing skills.
But a shortage of engineers in aviation is not unique to the Oshkosh area, the report concludes. And introducing aerospace careers into classrooms earlier as part of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education could help reverse that.
“We would like to see significant aerospace companies put their footprint down in the region,,” she said.
Consultant dropped abruptly
GO-EDC wrapped up this aviation report after stakeholders cut ties with a Florida consulting firm that had been hired to outline how best to bring aerospace to Wisconsin.
Newly formed GO-EDC delivered this finalized report to DoD in just six months, after the Oshkosh Common Council terminated its contract with consulting firm Explorer Solutions, first hired with more than $180,000 in grant money in March 2014.
Though GO-EDC used just a morsel of an Explorer Solutions’ research in its final report, stakeholders in this process characterize the firm’s contribution as providing a base of research that underpins this plan.
Meridith Jaeger, director of AeroInnovate, a University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh aviation business accelerator program, said she and others that built the final report tempered Explorer Solutions finding with interviews and input from local and national companies.
“(Explorer Solutions) did a good job compiling what was out there,” Jaegar said.
According to a draft of its research obtained by USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin, Explorer Solutions suggested the region develop engine-building capabilities and airplane maintenance shops that would draw fliers from nearby states for repairs. GO-EDC did not include these suggestions in its report to DoD.
Explorer Solutions also proposed, among other things, that the region develop a “GA (General Aviation) City,” a subdivision lined with a runway, and homes complete with airplane hangars, not garages. Some hobbyists would live in this subdivision, others would fly into Oshkosh year-round, to hunt, fish and snowmobile.
GO-EDC did not include this plan in its report to the DoD, either.
Ultimately, GO-EDC only included Explorer Solutions’ blueprint for 3D-printing in its final planning outline to the Department of Defense – just 10 pages of Explorer’s 100-plus page report. During a meeting last May, the Common Council voted unopposed to terminate its contract with Explorer Solutions and hire GO-EDC to finish the report, for $150,000.
Summer of opportunity
With this report in hand and a parcel of land near Wittman Regional Airport in Oshkosh ready for new industry, White and other stakeholders see this July’s EAA convention as an opportunity to introduce the region as a place for business, as well as recreation.
State, local and federal money has funded construction of an 80-acre development-ready business park that stakeholders hope will attract aviation companies. These lots are outfitted with plumbing and other infrastructure that companies need to develop there.
With land available, and new state tax breaks that shrink the tax rate on manufacturers to near-zero, Jaeger said Oshkosh can make a more-compelling case to companies that the area can support the industry.
For the first time during EAA this summer, developers will be able to deliver a full-throated pitch to businesses that flock to the convention.
“In the past we had companies that were interested in coming here but didn’t, because we didn’t have the right pieces in place,” Jaeger said. “”Slowly but surely this effort has been gaining traction. We are gathering more pieces to this puzzle.”
Reach Nate Beck at 920-858-9657 or firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter: @NateBeck9