Skilled to Work: New European office seeks to increase partnerships in Alabama

The European Office to Advance Economic Development officially launched in August.

Posted: Sep 5, 2019 9:52 PM
Updated: Sep 5, 2019 10:22 PM

When thinking of rockets, stretching metal honeycomb sheets may not be one of the first things that comes to mind.

But that’s just one of many jobs that aerospace technician Linda Letson does at RUAG Space USA in Decatur. She joined the company in February 2019 after wanting to join the aerospace manufacturing industry for a couple of years.

RUAG Space USA RUAG Space USA

“It is even more interesting than I thought. I knew it would be a lot different than anything I had ever done, but I wasn’t fully prepared,” said Letson.

RUAG Holding AG is a Swiss-based aerospace and defense technology company headquartered in Bern. It has been making payload fairings and composite structures in its space division for more than 20 years for both European and American rockets.

In 2016, the company opened a subsidiary called RUAG Space USA in Huntsville and opened its manufacturing plant in Decatur in 2017.

There they manufacture “composite technology based on aluminum honeycomb cores with carbon fiber reinforced plastic face sheets.” RUAG Space primarily works with United Launch Alliance (ULA), which is right next door to the Decatur site.

“Of course having ULA here and the heritage of rocket development here in the area was really important. The workforce here is just really fantastic for the company. And all that just really made sense,” said Robbie Harris, the manager of the Program Management Office at RUAG Space.

“There's not really anywhere else in the US that was so perfect.”

Harris said previously, the fairings they made for ULA were manufactured in Switzerland and flown to the United States. So having a US-based operation significantly cuts down on overall costs.

“This facility was selected because we could get what they need out of this facility at the rate that we need. Of course, coming to the US is, our plan is to grow and expand. And so we'll be looking to do that pretty aggressively,” said Harris.

And it’s not only RUAG doing business in the Tennessee Valley. According to the Office of the Governor, more than 70 companies operating in north Alabama are tied to European countries.

That’s why last week, Governor Kay Ivey announced the new European Office to Advance Economic Development.

“As we see investment from Europe on the rise, particularly in the automotive, aerospace, forest products and chemical sectors, it has become more apparent to us that having representation on the ground in Europe will help provide new connections, not only with companies within those sectors but also to help us advance our trade opportunities,” said Commerce Secretary Greg Canfield in a statement.

Christoph Doerr was appointed as the director of the office. According to the governor’s office, he is “an experienced German businessman who spent seven years in charge of an industrial operation in Alabama.

“I personally experienced the benefits of investing in Alabama, and I can share that with prospective companies, not just theoretical information about a business location in the state,” he stated.

The Huntsville-Madison County Chamber of Commerce said having a dedicated representative in Germany will be a big boost to help grow the area.

“One thing we’ve learned in the last several years of being active and promoting Huntsville is that a lot of people know our history, but they don’t know what we offer today,” said Lucia Cape, Senior Vice President of Economic Development, Industrial Relations & Workforce.

Back at RAUG Space, Harris said some of those offerings include state and local training courses for technicians, like the ones done in tandem with Calhoun Community College.

"Having people trained before they come in the door through programs that the state sets up is a game changer for us. So we really take advantage of that,” said Harris.

Letson is just one beneficiary of that training and said it allows her to excel at RUAG Space.

"Everything has got to be flight ready. You can’t make mistakes. You can’t “oops.” It’s got to be done correct the first time, because a lot of this stuff, once it’s together, there’s no getting it apart,” said Letson.

To learn more about the new office, click here.

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