Small French company a cog in Airbus machine

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.”

Talk to us

More in Herald Business Journal

Members of Gravitics' team and U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen stand in front of a mockup of a space module interior on Thursday, August 17, 2023 at Gravitics' Marysville facility. Left to right: Mark Tiner, government affairs representative; Jiral Shah, business development; U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen; Mike DeRosa, marketing; Scott Macklin, lead engineer. (Gravitics.)
Marysville startup prepares for space — the financial frontier

Gravitics is building space station module prototypes to one day house space travelers and researchers.

Orca Mobility designer Mike Lowell, left, and CEO Bill Messing at their office on Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2023 in Granite Falls, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Could a Granite Falls startup’s three-wheeler revolutionize delivery?

Orca Mobility’s battery-powered, three-wheel truck is built on a motorcycle frame. Now, they aim to make it self-driving.

Catherine Robinweiler leads the class during a lab session at Edmonds College on April 29, 2021. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
Grant aids apprenticeship program in Mukilteo and elsewhere

A $5.6 million U.S. Department of Labor grant will boost apprenticeships for special education teachers and nurses.

Peoples Bank is placing piggy banks with $30 around Washington starting Aug. 1.
(Peoples Bank)
Peoples Bank grant program seeks proposals from nonprofits

Peoples Bank offers up to $35,000 in Impact Grants aimed at helping communities. Applications due Sept. 15.

Workers build the first all-electric commuter plane, the Eviation Alice, at Eviation's plant on Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021 in Arlington, Washington.  (Andy Bronson / The Herald)
Arlington’s Eviation selects Seattle firm to configure production plane

TLG Aerospace chosen to configure Eviation Aircraft’s all-electric commuter plane for mass production.

Jim Simpson leans on Blue Ray III, one of his designs, in his shop on Friday, August 25, 2023, in Clinton, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Whidbey Island master mechanic building dream car from “Speed Racer”

Jim Simpson, 68, of Clinton, is using his knowledge of sports cars to assemble his own Mach Five.

Yansi De La Cruz molds a cheese mixture into bone shapes at Himalayan Dog Chew on Thursday, Sept. 21, 2023 in Arlington, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Give a dog a bone? How about a hard cheese chew from Arlington instead!

Launched from a kitchen table in 2003, Himalayan Pet Supply now employs 160 workers at its new Arlington factory.

Inside the new Boeing 737 simulator at Simulation Flight in Mukilteo, Washington on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
New Boeing 737 simulator takes ‘flight’ in Mukilteo

Pilots can test their flying skills or up their game at Simulation Flight in Mukilteo.

An Amazon worker transfers and organizes items at the new PAE2 Amazon Fulfillment Center on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2023, in Arlington, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Amazon cuts ribbon on colossal $355M fulfillment center in Arlington

At 2.8 million square feet, the facility is the largest of its kind in Washington. It can hold 40 million “units” of inventory.

A computer rendering of the North Creek Commerce Center industrial park in development at 18712 Bothell-Everett Highway. (Kidder Mathews)
Developer breaks ground on new Bothell industrial park

The North Creek Commerce Center on Bothell Everett Highway will provide warehouse and office space in three buildings.

Dan Bates / The Herald
Funko president, Brian Mariotti is excited about the growth that has led his company to need a 62,000 square foot facility in Lynnwood.
Photo Taken: 102312
Former Funko CEO resigns from the Everett company

Brian Mariotti resigned Sept. 1, six weeks after announcing he was taking a six-month sabbatical from the company.

Cash is used for a purchase at Molly Moon's Ice Cream in Edmonds, Washington on Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
Paper or plastic? Snohomish County may require businesses to take cash

County Council member Nate Nehring proposed an ordinance to ban cashless sales under $200. He hopes cities will follow suit.