Monday, January 22, 2018

Mexico takes flight as emerging hub for aerospace industry

QUERETARO, Mexico — In one part of this central Mexico city, technicians overhaul commercial aircraft engines and landing gear. Across town, engineers assemble fuselages for one of the most modern business aircraft on earth, the Learjet 85.

Industrializing nations like Brazil and China get a lot of attention for their thriving aerospace sectors. But Mexico's aerospace industry, too, has gone wheels up and taken flight, with a lot less world notice.

More than 260 aerospace companies now operate in Mexico, exporting about $4.3 billion in aircraft and parts last year. The Mexican government has set a target of $12 billion in such exports by 2020, a figure that would surpass aerospace exports from Brazil and Spain.

Major clusters of aerospace companies have settled in the Tijuana-Mexicali corridor along the U.S. border, in the city of Chihuahua in northwest Mexico, and surrounding this high desert hub in the geographical center of the country. Smaller clusters have formed in Monterrey in the northeast and in the port city of Guaymas on the Gulf of California in Sonora state.

Local officials are hoping that one day Queretaro (pronounced keh-REH-tah-roh) will be uttered in the same breath as aviation centers like Seattle and Wichita, Kan.

Unlike other up-and-coming aerospace powers, Mexico neither supplies its own defense needs nor produces its own aircraft. But just about every component imaginable for jetliners and helicopters can be manufactured in Mexico today, including jet turbines and fuselages.

It's only a matter of time before the nation may design its own aircraft, experts here say. Dreams already are taking shape. In an office in the National Aeronautics University of Queretaro, Rector Jorge Gutierrez de Velasco leans back and reflects on Mexico's aerospace achievements.

"History tells us that clusters take decades to take shape. Then as they develop, advancing along with Mexican engineering, development processes, educational and economic capacities and so forth, maybe we can talk about producing an Aztec Uno or a Huitzilopochtli," Gutierrez said, reaching for possible names for an aircraft from his nation's history before the Spanish conquest.

First off, though, he said the nation wants to see a new foreign aircraft take off with 50 percent of its components "made in Mexico."

Big U.S. companies with operations in Mexico include Hawker Beechcraft, Gulfstream Aerospace, General Electric, Textron and Honeywell. France's Safran Group, Canada's Bombardier Aerospace, Netherlands-based Fokker and Spain's Aernnova, a major supplier to Airbus, Bombardier and Brazil's Embraer, also have a presence in Mexico.

Mexico has an edge in human capital. On a per capita basis, it graduates three times more engineers than the United States. Some 30 percent of Mexico's 745,000 university students are enrolled in engineering and technology fields, and 114,000 of them graduate yearly. Technicians, though, often have to be trained in-house in specialized processes even after receiving training elsewhere.

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