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New Star in Alabama Aerospace Cluster

The high-tech alloys of Carpenter Technology have traveled with the Wright Brothers, Charles Lindbergh and Neil Armstrong. When the 125-year-old Pennsylvania company looked to long-term expansion, it traveled to Alabama.

Chad Johnson, Carpenter Technology employee, uses a lift to move steel at the facility in May 2014.

Chad Johnson, Carpenter Technology employee, uses a lift to move steel at the facility in May 2014.

Outside of the aeronautics, do you know what the Wright Brothers, the Spirit of St. Louis and every U.S. Space program project have in common?

That would be Carpenter Technology’s premium alloy steel.

Each and every one of those historical flights included materials by Carpenter Technology Corp., says Jim Seitz, Carpenter’s program director.

“If you’ve ever been on an airplane, our products were on there somewhere,” Seitz says.

Carpenter Technology, which opened a new $500 million plant near Athens in Limestone County earlier this year, also is celebrating its 125th year in business. What started with a one-building plant in Reading, Penn., is today an international leader in its industry.

Strong customer demand for premium alloy products in the aerospace and energy industries led Carpenter Technology to locate its first greenfield plant in Tanner, near Athens. The plant started production in January and employs 160 workers so far.

“This was a very big step for Carpenter, emotionally, just looking outside of our roots in Reading,” says Dave Strobel, senior vice president of global operations. “We have a big and capable facility up here, but with the growth we saw in key markets of aerospace and energy and others, we had to figure out how do we grow and where do we grow.”

The board’s challenge to Strobel and his team: look to the next 50 years, not just the next five years.

“That opened up our thinking,” Strobel says.

They looked at possible sites in the U.S. and Europe, Seitz says, starting with some 200 possible sites. “We narrowed it to 80 to 20 to three,” and then the Limestone County site was chosen.

Seitz says the overall infrastructure — energy, water and roads — along with the available workforce and proximity to high-tech Huntsville and Decatur sealed the deal.

“It was also the support of the community down there,” Strobel says. “Spending time at the robotics center and the local tech schools really and truly sold us on Alabama, and we couldn’t be more thrilled as we’ve gotten to know the people better. We are convinced we made the right choice.”

In the corporate scheme of things, the company’s facilities in Pennsylvania will supply the Athens site with ingot, to be conditioned and re-melted.

Strong customer demand for premium alloy products in the aerospace and energy industries led Carpenter Technology to locate a new $500 million plant near Athens in Limestone County.

World’s largest press

The largest radial press in the world is at the heart of the plant’s operations. It is responsible for pressing, shaping and changing the network of steel at temperatures hotter than 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, Seitz explains.

Getting the massive press to the plant was a challenge. It was moved to the plant in three pieces, each weighing 160 tons. It took eight hours to move each part from the marina in Decatur about five miles to the plant site at Thomas Hammons Road and U.S. 31.

That didn’t cause any construction delays. In fact, construction of the facility was completed ahead of schedule.

“For us, it’s all about how we can service our customers in the best possible way, with very good, economical products, and the Athens plant is key in that operation,” Strobel says.

Plant General Manager Ernie Jones says the plant was designed with modern technology and optimum product flow to meet customer requirements for reduced lead times. Once it’s operating at full capacity, the Athens Operations will be capable of producing approximately 27,000 tons per year.

Right now, the average delivery time is four to six weeks after an order is placed, Jones says. The same order could take up to 30 weeks at another plant, he says.

Carpenter’s products go all over the world, with about 32 percent being international sales. But Strobel says their products also ship to every state in the U.S.

“Other companies take our material and make something out of it, whether it’s a landing gear or a disc for aerospace engines,” he says.

Carpenter operates on a fiscal year July 1-June 30. At the end of April, for FY14, the company had net sales of $1.75 billion. Of those sales, 64 percent of the total net sales were to aerospace, defense, energy and medical industries.

Here’s a breakdown of where Carpenter products go:

45 percent — aerospace & defense
22 percent — industrial & consumer
14 percent — energy
7 percent — transportation
7 percent — distribution
5 percent — medical

Carpenter Technology’s Jim Seitz, left, program director, and Ernie Jones, general manager of the Alabama plant.
 

Carpenter family

Strobel believes one of the things that differentiates Carpenter from the competition is its employees.

Jones agrees. All hiring is done through AIDT (Alabama Industrial Development Training), and potential employees undergo some training without pay to see if they make the cut. The company also believes in hiring multiple members from the same family, when they’re qualified.

“It may not work everywhere, but it works well for us,” Jones says, adding that people are important at Carpenter.

“Anybody can buy technology,” Strobel adds. “But when it comes to the people side — the ability to have people work effectively together and have the skills and ability to apply the knowledge they’ve learned to their work, that’s what sets us apart.”

Limestone County’s proximity to Huntsville’s aerospace cluster also was an important factor in locating the plant in Alabama.

“That was part of the whole draw for us,” Strobel says. “Anything to do with aerospace is very expensive, so, if there is ever any issue, it’s important to have someone nearby who can help troubleshoot it quickly.”

Tax incentives, including $95 million over 20 years, were a factor in the whole equation, but Strobel says it was not his main focus.

“My primary consideration was not tax incentives, but where I can put a plant and grow it over time and feel good that we can pull in the right work force to run it.”

Carpenter purchased about 230 acres for the Athens facility. The company also acquired Building 23 and about 30 acres at the former Delphi site across the street from the plant. The building is used for project offices.

Plans were approved in August 2011. Because of accreditation and compliance requirements, the facility’s lab was fully functional and running in April 2013, a year before the anticipated opening.

The new Carpenter plant was built with options to triple the plant’s size. However, there are no current plans for expansion.

Since production started in January, Carpenter has announced the addition of a new $20 million super alloy powder facility across the street, company spokesman William Rudolph Jr. says. That means Carpenter will employ about 250 workers in Tanner by 2017.

“The super alloy powder facility won’t create a lot of jobs out of the gate, but it will grow over time,” he says. “And it’s nice that they will be bringing life back into the old Delphi building.”

Wendy Reeves is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Huntsville.

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