In the News

Spirit, NIAR partner on ‘game-changer’ defense center in Wichita

Wichita Business Journal | Daniel McCoy

Two local entities already heavily tied to the defense industry are joining forces again on a project stakeholders say makes Wichita a crucial cog in military work. 

Spirit AeroSystems Inc. and the National Institute for Aviation Research at Wichita State University on Friday celebrated the opening of the new National Defense Prototype Center. 

Leaders of the company and the university’s aviation research arm say the plan is to pack the 125,000 square-foot facility with the technology that will make the center unique in the work in its capability to partner with defense customers. 

A focus of the center will be on hypersonic weapons — specifically the high-temperature materials needed for those platforms — but it is also envisioned as a go-to hub for a variety of defense prototyping needs. 

And the partners’ plan for the center is already paying dividends, they say. 

“This facility is already helping Spirit and NIAR win new work,” Spirit CEO Tom Gentile said during a Friday news conference.

The center resides in a Spirit-owned building that was once an IT center for the Boeing Co. It's adjacent to Boeing's former office complex just south of Spirit’s manufacturing headquarters.

Eby Construction Co. was the general contractor on a project to convert the former two-story building into a single, high-ceilinged facility and clear floor space for multiple labs planned for the center. 

The center was touted as offering applied learning opportunities for WSU students. It includes equipment like state-of-the-art 3D printers and specialized autoclaves that will give it capabilities the companies' leaders say aren't found together anywhere.

But the biggest differentiator, Spirit leaders said, is how the facility and another partnership with NIAR can help defense customers move rapidly from design into production by relying on the knowledge base and skilled workforce already in place in Wichita.

Cindy Hoover, vice president of research and development of growth programs at Spirit, called that speed-to-market “a game-changer” and “force-multiplier for our customers.” 

Eric Hein, the company’s vice president for advanced development programs in defense and space, said following the grand opening that the center will eventually be able to accommodate 200 workers. 

Some equipment has already moved in and workers will begin populating the facility by the end of the year. 

More equipment and people will be added over the course of the next two years, with Hein saying the center was a key to the company’s goal of growing defense and space work to 40% of its portfolio. 

That’s specifically, he said, because of the variety of options the center will feature under one roof make it flexible enough to perform multiple projects. 

“It enables us to pursue more than one opportunity at a time,” he said. 

Gentile, the CEO, credited U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., for helping secure a $5 million grant via Kansas’ designation as a defense manufacturing community by the Department of Defense that will be used to help equip the facility. 

Moran, meanwhile, said the center will bring more defense opportunities to Kansas, particularly in the realm of hypersonic weapons that have become a growing emphasis for the DoD.

Such weapons, which travel at speeds that would take them from Wichita to Kansas City in four minutes, are seen by many as crucial defense platforms. 

And, Moran said, the Wichita center will help the U.S. close ground on countries like China and Russia that, as of now, appear ahead on hypersonic technologies. 

“This (facility) is hugely important,” Moran said. “This is about whether or not America has a future.”