ST. NAZAIRE, France — At Spirit AeroSystems’ new plant in St. Nazaire, three clocks on a conference room wall are set to three different times: local time; Wichita, Kan.,time; and Kinston, N.C., time.
The clocks are an outward sign of how tightly the three plants are linked as they take on an all-new program, the Airbus A350XWB (extra wide body).
“(The site) requires an immense amount of coordination with Wichita and Kinston,” said Jeff Russell, senior operations manager for the St. Nazaire plant, who is on temporary assignment from Wichita.
The nearly 60,000-square-foot French facility — small in comparison with other Spirit operations — is dedicated to the A350 program.
Kinston will ship six center fuselage assemblies to St. Nazaire for assembly.
The complete fuselage section — 65 feet long and 9,000 pounds when assembled — will be taken to the nearby Airbus plant.
Spirit won the contract in 2008 and opened plants in Kinston and St. Nazaire last year.
St. Nazaire is six hours ahead of Kinston and seven hours ahead of Wichita time. So in the mornings, Russell works with his French team.
“By the time we get back from lunch, email and phones are blowing up” from peers in Wichita and Kinston arriving at work.
His day continues with late-evening meetings for Russell and others who coordinate with U.S. facilities.
“At this point in the project, a lot of us work two shifts,” Russell said.
He’s not complaining. Russell came to France to get the plant running.
“I’m here to work,” he said.
During a recent tour, workers were installing the tooling used in the various assembly positions inside the brightly lit factory.
The plant employs 34 people, including five on assignment from the U.S. Employment will increase to about 75 when the A350 reaches full production rates.
“It’s not a big production; it’s meant to be contained,” Dan Wheeler, vice president and general manager for Spirit’s North Carolina business unit, said during a tour of the facility.
“It’s meant to do the job, but it’s also a little jewel. We’re proud of what we’ve got going on here.”
In the future, there is room for the plant to double in size.
“We’d love to have it be a future of steady growth,” Wheeler said.
St. Nazaire is a harbor town of about 67,000 with a long history of fishing and shipbuilding. It lies on the mouth of the Loire River near the Atlantic in western France and is an important seaport.
It became a major German submarine base during World War II and was nearly destroyed by Allied bombing. The town was rebuilt in the late 1940s.
Today, the shipyard and Airbus are major employers. Spirit selected the site in large part because of its proximity to the ocean and to Airbus, Wheeler said.
“It really came down to risk and economics,” Wheeler said.
It’s less expensive to ship separate panels over the ocean than to ship a larger, heavier, completed fuselage section, Wheeler said.
Spirit also was attracted by the region’s expertise in composites. Airbus’ facility in nearby Nantes has a composite center of excellence.
Employees say they were attracted to Spirit because of the opportunities to work with composites, Russell said.
“Workers see composites as the future,” he said.
The facility, officially called Spirit France, was set up as a French legal entity.
“It works better that way,” Wheeler said.
It’s easier, for example, to get parts through customs and to work with the tax structure.
“The advantages of being a French company is just to fit in,” Wheeler said. “All the rules seem to fit you better.”