A main reason Airbus North America Engineering opened in Wichita eight years ago is the same reason it's now expanding into new space — the availability of skilled engineers.
Work by the Wichita engineers "has just been terrific," said Barry Eccleston, president and CEO of Airbus Americas in Herndon, Va. "So when it came time to expand again, we said, 'Let's see if we can expand in Wichita.' "
This morning, Airbus plans to sign a lease with Old Town developer Dave Burk on space at 238 N. Mead — formerly the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame building — across the street from its existing facility.
Burk is buying the 26,000-square-foot building from the city. That purchase is scheduled to be finalized today, Burk said.
Work on a $1 million renovation begins Wednesday, Burk said. Airbus will invest another $1.5 million in equipment and technology.
"We're on a fast track now," Burk said.
If all goes as planned, Airbus will be ready for operations to begin May 1, Burk said.
By the end of the year, about 80 engineers will work in the new space, bringing total Airbus employment in Wichita from 210 to nearly 300, Eccleston said.
Airbus is eyeing another expansion as well.
"Ideally, we'd like to have 350 to 400 engineers in Wichita," Eccleston said. "Although that final expansion has not been committed, that's the ultimate objective."
Wichita design and stress engineers work on wings of new and existing models of Airbus aircraft. They also do some fuselage work.
The expansion was necessary, however, because the Wichita office is moving into another area of engineering — aircraft repair.
Airlines "come to us to get some approval for that repair," Eccleston said. "To do that, you need experienced engineers."
In 2007, Airbus opened an engineering facility in Mobile, Ala. It now employs 150 and will continue to grow this year, Eccleston said.
Airbus was drawn to Wichita because of its pool of talented design and stress engineers, he said. It also wanted to place more work globally.
Work across time zones between Wichita and the United Kingdom allows Airbus to extend the engineering work day.
"We gain an extra six or seven hours simply by Wichita working through their work day," Eccleston said.
Having work in the U.S. gives Airbus another advantage.
Airbus sells its planes in U.S. dollars. But its costs in the United Kingdom and other parts of Europe are in pounds or euros. That exposes the company to the risk of the foreign exchange rate.
"If the dollar is weak, that is not so good for us," Eccleston said. And recently, the dollar has been weak.
"A natural hedge against the U.S. dollar is to have more costs in dollars," he said.