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Tennessee Soars in Aerospace and Defense

With two world-renowned research facilities, Tennessee has earned a name for itself in the aerospace and defense industry.

By Bill Lewis on July 12, 2014

Arnold Engineering Development Center in Tullahoma
Tennessee / Rick Goodfriend

For James Herron, the highly complex and technical world of aerospace and defense comes down to one word in Tennessee: family.

Herron is president and chief executive officer of Micro Craft Inc., an employee-owned company based in Tullahoma. Micro Craft, founded in 1958, provides engineering, manufacturing and testing services for aerospace companies of all sizes, including NASA.

“We are very much an aerospace and defense industry family in Tennessee,” Herron says. “We are drawn very much to the engineering mindset that is in abundance here in Tullahoma.”

Tennessee is flying high when it comes to leadership in the aerospace and defense industry. The Volunteer State has more than 100 companies devoted to aerospace and defense-related activities.

Tucked away in southeast Tennessee along the Interstate 24 corridor between Chattanooga and Nashville, the 18,000-population of Tullahoma could be considered ground zero for the industry and one of the most important centers of aerospace research and testing in North America, owing to the presence of the Arnold Engineering Development Complex (AEDC).

Arnold Community Supports Facility

Micro Craft has 60 employees, but Herron is hoping future growth will increase that number. Companies like Micro Craft have purposely established and grown near facilities like AEDC, an Air Force facility that has some of the most advanced flight simulation test facilities in the world. AEDC operates 43 aerodynamic and propulsion wind tunnels, rocket and turbine engine test cells, space environmental chambers and other specialized units.

More than half of the test units are the only ones of their kind in the U.S., and 14 are unique in the world. Virtually every high-performance flight system in use by the Department of Defense today, and all NASA manned spacecraft have been tested in AEDC’s facilities.

Aerospace Testing Alliance (ATA) is the main contractor at the facility, providing operations, maintenance and support services for AEDC. The massive facility has 2,200 employees, largely civilian workers.

One of the major supporters of the facility is the Arnold Community Council, composed of business and community leaders in the 13-county southern middle Tennessee region. The council devotes a great deal of effort to educating government and business leaders on the importance and impact of AEDC on the region and state.

“There are multiple generations dedicated to AEDC and, more importantly, to our nation’s defense,” says Ben Craig, president of the council and a Shelbyville real estate executive. “AEDC is a one-of-a-kind facility, and we want to see it remain that way for the future.”

Oak Ridge Lab Helps Industry

The state’s aerospace companies can also harness the innovation engine that is the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the Department of Energy’s largest multiprogram science and energy laboratory. With $1.5 billion in annual R&D expenditures, ORNL devotes much of its research efforts to applications in the aerospace and defense industry and often collaborates with private sector-companies to accelerate new technologies into practical applications.

Transfer of these and other innovations to the private sector has created new industries in the U.S, resulted in substantial cost savings for companies and consumers, and provided jobs for Americans.

One promising development is ORNL’s use of 3-D printing techniques. Additive manufacturing, or 3-D printing, can make things from a variety of metals and composites without the expensive and energy-intensive tooling and machining traditional manufacturing requires.

This has been particularly useful to the aerospace and automotive industries, including many operating in Tennessee. Lockheed Martin, for example, is working with ORNL to scale up 3-D printing to produce parts, some from 60 to 100 feet in size, for the aerospace and other industries.

“We have a host of research that can help the aerospace and defense and many other industries,” says Tom Rogers, ORNL’s director of industrial partnerships and economic development. “We are also proud ORNL is a differentiator in attracting new companies to Tennessee.”

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