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From the Alps to Alabama

RUAG Space moved its manufacturing of parts for U.S. Atlas V rockets from Switzerland to Alabama.

Trent Doran at work on a system that will become part of a United Launch Alliance rocket, ready to take U.S. satellites into space.

Trent Doran at work on a system that will become part of a United Launch Alliance rocket, ready to take U.S. satellites into space.

For more than a decade, RUAG Space has been manufacturing components for United Launch Alliance (ULA), the joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin that makes rockets in Decatur to launch U.S. satellites into space. But the Swiss-based RUAG Space always has produced those parts in Switzerland — that is, until now. 

In 2015, RUAG Space announced it would establish a manufacturing facility in Decatur, with a headquarters office located in nearby Huntsville. Through a strategic partnership with key customer ULA, RUAG Space has taken over about 132,000 square feet of space within the 1.5 million-square-foot ULA factory. The company will produce its payload fairing systems for U.S. Atlas V rockets in Alabama and, together with ULA, plans to hire about 100 workers in the next several years. 

“Building our own manufacturing facility enables us to further grow our footprint in the United States, relying on a strong local workforce,” says Peter Guggenbach, CEO of RUAG Space.

“The local workforce is great, with many talented and skilled professionals in the area due to the strong defense and aerospace industries,” says Chrystal Morgan, business operations manager for RUAG Space USA. “And the career paths we offer, as well as the investment RUAG Space is making, attract great people.”

Committing to Alabama

RUAG employees work on rocket parts in Decatur. On lift, Sidney Sparks (left) and Trent Doran; Justin Phillips on ground.

 

​RUAG Space has long been a leader in the European space market. It is the leading supplier of products to the space industry across Europe. But in recent years, the company has won more and more business in the U.S. space industry — not just with ULA in Alabama, but also with customers in California, Colorado and elsewhere. 

As RUAG’s American business grew, leaders decided they needed a U.S. presence beyond a sales office. “RUAG has the benefits of a strong European legacy and years of partnerships with American companies,” says Morgan. “However, RUAG wanted to be closer to the U.S. space industry and customers. This new facility, with its prime location and dedicated American workforce, will allow us to be an even stronger supplier and partner. The close proximity allows us to be even more dedicated to our customers.”

RUAG Space USA incorporated in 2015 and now has facilities in four states — Alabama, California, Colorado and Florida. 

For RUAG, partnering with — and being in such close proximity to — ULA presents an opportunity to continue building on a relationship that has been successful for several years. “ULA and RUAG have been working together successfully in the Atlas program for more than a decade, and now we can build on this collaboration with the new Vulcan launcher and our new production site,” Guggenbach says. “RUAG is a company that values partnerships and is willing to invest. We are not just building products, we are working closely with our partners to enhance and continuously develop products better.”

Manufacturing on the Cutting Edge

In its new digs in Alabama, RUAG will continue to build the 5.4-meter payload fairing system and the integrated interstage adapter for the Atlas V rocket, which it has been fabricating for several years. In addition, the new composites production facility will allow RUAG to also manufacture several new additional flight hardware structures for the new ULA Vulcan rocket. 

And as RUAG outfits its new factory, the company continues to look for ways to use modern approaches that will boost production and cut costs. 

“We increasingly try to seek as much standardization as possible in order to get to certain volumes,” Guggenbach says. “This allows us to lower our costs, which is then a great thing for our partners, who want to remain competitive in the market.”

For the manufacturing of payload fairings, RUAG uses a new “out-of-autoclave” procedure, which involves an industrial oven instead of a high-pressure chamber. Industrial ovens are much more energy efficient than traditional processes and, because of their size, allow workers to cure the structures in full size. “This process reduces integration time of individual pieces and cuts costs down tremendously,” Guggenbach says. 

In addition, RUAG works to consistently increase its usage of commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) products and solutions rather than developing custom-made solutions — another huge cost cutter. “Every manager in my company has COTS targets, and we continue to meet expectations in this regard,” Guggenbach says. “Each year, we try to increase the COTS percentage in our products.”

Setting up shop in Alabama has, for RUAG Space, been a good opportunity to infuse its traditional business with “a lot of motivated, forward-thinking employees,” Guggenbach says. “The United States has great potential, and we are investing. There is great business opportunity in the United States, and we particularly seek to invest close to our customers. It is an exciting time for RUAG. We are in a position to offer an even broader range of services and products manufactured in the United States to customers in the market.”

The decision to bring one of those facilities to north Alabama involved a joint effort among the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs, the Morgan County Economic Development Association, the Huntsville/Madison County Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Decatur Chamber of Commerce, as well as ULA leaders. 

“The area’s economic development teams promoted the talented local workforce, as well as the low cost of living and supported RUAG in its decision to locate here,” Morgan says. “It is evident that this state is determined to build upon the existing aerospace community and recruit new businesses for continued economic growth.” 

By partnering with ULA to bring manufacturing capabilities and new jobs to Decatur, RUAG Space was able to provide more cost-efficient pricing for U.S. rocket projects. And even though the company is a ULA tenant, it will continue to pursue and serve other customers across the region. 

“We are fortunate that our strong relationship with ULA helped us recruit another world-class company to Morgan County,” says Senator Arthur Orr, chairman of the Morgan County Economic Development Association. “This partnership is important to the future of ULA, and we are honored to have RUAG in our community.”

Nancy Jackson and Tyler Brown are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Huntsville.

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