USC Aerospace center hopes to land Boeing

ashain@thestate.comOctober 2, 2013 

— When will Boeing become a wingman on the University of South Carolina’s new aerospace research center?

There are signs the Boeing-USC relationship is growing, holding out the possibility of growing the state’s new aerospace sector.

Representatives of the Chicago-based aerospace giant, which has a newly opened 6,000-employee plant in North Charleston, have attended events for USC’s new McNair Center for Aerospace Research and Innovation. The center’s new director also spent a year working for the company, and the school is talking with Boeing about sharing manufacturing processes used at its plants for research.

The hope is that Boeing will become the kind of partner to the McNair Center that BMW has become to Clemson University’s International Center for Automotive Research in Greenville. The German automaker, which built its only U.S. plant in nearby Greer, has two endowed professors and a research operation at the Clemson center.

“You wait for the right time,” USC president Harris Pastides said Monday. “We have outstanding relationships with (Boeing). ... I’m confident that, as we develop our own mission, they will be on board with us.”

Boeing said it has not committed yet to conducting research or providing financial support to any S.C. colleges.

“We have ongoing dialog with a number of universities throughout South Carolina, and we continue to evaluate how future support may be targeted in conjunction with the needs of the company and the particular strengths of each program,” Boeing said in a statement.

The McNair Center is just getting started with it’s business-driven mission.

S.C. Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt was a speaker at Monday’s investiture of the center’s new director, Zafer Gurdal.

“We really are just at the launch pad of a great aerospace industry,” Hitt said at the event. “If we have the same success in the next 20 years as we’ve had in the last 20 years with BMW, we will revolutionize this state in so many ways. It only can be done through increased potential through education.”

The McNair Center got started in 2011 with a $5 million donation from Lake City financier Darla Moore. Moore hails from the same hometown as the center’s namesake, astronaut Ronald McNair who died in the 1986 Challenger space shuttle disaster.

Work accelerated with the addition of center director Zafer Gurdal, who came from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, this spring and the start of the first aerospace-related majors this fall.

Construction has started work on two labs that will study advanced composites manufacturing and lightning response, research that Gurdal said companies could use to certify the safety of aircraft parts. The labs will be housed in the Horizon Building, at Main and Blossom streets, and SCRA building, along Assembly Street.

The center also is close to an agreement with Dutch aircraft maker Fokker to do research into thermal plastic welding, which is needed as more planes are made from composite materials.

Gurdal has his own ties to Boeing, having taken a year-long sabbatical while at Virginia Tech to work with the company.

The McNair Center is in talks about having Boeing share its manufacturing processes so USC can conduct real-world research, Gurdal said. The school will share its findings with the company.

Boeing said it has similar sharing agreements with other universities nationwide but none in the Palmetto State.

The McNair Center plans to use the Boeing technology in a $3 million to $5 million manufacturing facility – paid by donations and endowment interest – that could open next year, Gurdal said. Another company is interested in providing its manufacturing machinery in the facility, he said.

The McNair Center also plans to collaborate with other S.C. schools in pitching research work to Boeing and other aerospace companies.

Boeing’s S.C. arrival in 2011 was the state’s largest economic development announcement – eclipsing BMW’s auto plant in Greer, which opened in 1994.

BMW’s first U.S. plant has been a boon to the Upstate – especially to Clemson University’ iCAR, which also educates graduate students in the automotive fields. The automaker has funded a pair endowed chairs at the center – in automotive systems integration and automotive manufacturing – and worked with the school on an information technology research center.

The involvement of the state’s higher education system from technical colleges that train workers to research universities is crucial to growing South Carolina’s aerospace industry, said Hitt, a former BMW executive.

“When we started at BMW, we did it for 10 years or so without a great deal of academic involvement,” Hitt said. “The surge that has happened since we married the two has been huge. I think we will see the same thing here (with aerospace).”

The McNair Center now is offering two graduate majors in aerospace engineering and engineering management and an undergraduate minor in aerospace engineering. The school plans a graduate program in systems design starting next year and, in the future, will start an aerospace executive graduate program with the Moore School of Business.

“We need to fill in all those blanks, and we need to find a pathway so that people can move through this system and get to be better and better,” Hitt said. “What you want to have at Boeing – and we’re seeing at BMW – is that they want to be able to start growing their own.”

Boeing is keeping tabs on the work at USC’s McNair Center.

The company congratulated the center on this week’s ceremony honoring its new director and a trio of major donors – including Anita Zucker, the state’s wealthiest person – who contributed a combined $11 million.

“We look forward to watching this initiative grow and mature across the state,” Boeing said in a statement.

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