Still weaving for a living
There was a time when events near Kinston a few days ago would have been headline news.
Here is what happened. A Russian military-style cargo airplane took off from the Kinston Regional Jetport loaded with a North Carolina woven product worth millions. The product was transported to France where it will be assembled into a final product in another factory.
Having a Russian military-style aircraft touch down in Eastern North Carolina would have made big headlines in the Cold War days.
On the other hand, the movement of woven materials from a North Carolina factory to another country for further processing would have drawn no special attention. Back then, cotton and other fibers moved from spinning mills, to dying facilities, to weaving mills, to cut-and-sew operations, and a variety of other domestic and foreign processors before the final product was ready.
But the recent manufacture and export of the woven product from Kinston should have been headline news.
The woven product that left North Carolina in the Russian plane was not cloth. It was a large section of the fuselage for the new Airbus A350 XWB passenger aircraft being assembled in Europe from parts made all over the world.
That is right. The newest aircraft models of both Airbus and Boeing are built using composite materials that are stronger than the heavier metals that once were the standard construction materials for the bodies of big aircraft. The new standard, the composites, are combinations of fibers and resin-type compounds. These are the kinds of materials that were woven into the super strength materials that make up the Airbus fuselage panels fabricated in Kinston.
The School of Textiles at North Carolina State University has led the way in research that makes it possible for North Carolina to take advantage of its historic connection to textiles and move to the leading edge in the creation and use of composite materials for both woven and non-woven materials.
An interesting story, you say. Then you ask: Why did they need a Russian airplane? Why did the plane use the airport of a small Eastern North Carolina town instead of one in a major metropolitan area? And, why in the world was such a high-tech airplane part manufactured in that small town?
The answers, though simple, point to the complex challenges North Carolina faces as it tries to adapt its attitudes and capabilities to be a high-performing player in the 21st Century.
An airplane was needed because time was important, more important than the lower cost of ocean transport. It was Russian because Russia has a fleet of giant transport aircraft capable of carrying heavy and bulky loads.
This large Russian plane requires a long runway to take-off and land, a minimum of about 10,000 feet. Kinston’s runway, with a length of about 11,500 feet, is one of the few airports in the region that could handle the Russian plane.
Finally, Spirit AeroSystems manufactured the parts in Kinston because they had been able to locate their factory beside the airport runway. They could move bulky fuselage parts out their front door on to the transport airplane without any intermediate transportation connections or delays.
None of this could have happened had it not been for the much-maligned Global TransPark, where Spirit located, to get the time-sensitive manufacturing and transport advantages the TransPark provides.
One big transaction does not insure the TransPark’s success. Nor does the amazing materials research at North Carolina State guarantee a job for every North Carolinian.
But these efforts are a lot more likely to help us succeed than sitting on our hands and complaining about all our jobs moving overseas.