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Some might wonder why aircraft piston manufacturer Continental Motors® named its upcoming construction of its new greenfield manufacturing plant in Mobile, AL. “Blue Marlin.” What does a deep sea fish have to do with an aerospace company?
“Blue marlins are powerful, fast, and dynamic sport fish: they embody the strength and versatility that has characterized Continental Motors® since our founding in 1905,” says Michael Skolnik, Executive Vice President of Global Operations. “It’s an appropriate name for a revolutionary manufacturing initiative associated with an investment of $75 million. This investment provides a strong foundation for us to build upon our leadership position for the next one-hundred years.”
Indeed, Skolnik says that Project Blue Marlin will greatly improve the productivity of our existing product lines as well as provide the ability to add innovative new products, to continue to advance the standards in the aviation industry.”
Continental Motors® designs and manufactures a range of gasoline, diesel, and experimental piston engines and spare parts for general aviation purposes. Gasoline engines range in size from 95 to 375 horsepower; world-class Jet-A diesel engines rated at 135 to 155 horsepower; and experimental engines in the range of 150 to 205 horsepower for four-cylinders and 260 to 270 horsepower for six-cylinders. It also provides Maintenance Repair and Overhaul (MRO) services for piston aircraft and PT6 turbine engines, as well as avionics and interiors through various subsidiaries.
Continental Motors® just broke ground to construct the 275,000 square-foot advanced engine and parts plant at the Mobile Aeroplex at Brookley Field. Initial operations are scheduled to begin transition in June 2019 and full production will begin by the end of 2020. And not a moment too soon.
“Our current site is on an old Air Force base in Mobile that consists of 11 buildings on 45 acres. Manufacturing is conducted in four of those buildings,” Skolnik points out. “By moving everything under one roof, we gain the ability to redefine our processes and equipment layout as well as evaluate new manufacturing techniques and automation technologies. We will profoundly transform the way the company designs, produces, certifies, and supports our products, shortening lead times, eliminating inefficiencies, improving productivity, and greatly increasing customer satisfaction,” Skolnik says.
While Skolnik points to the vertical integration of Continental Motors® as a key competitive advantage to achieving high quality over competitors that outsource most of their components, he says, “Sometimes I comment that we’re too vertically-integrated. We are looking at some functions outside our core competencies where the right supplier might make us more efficient, allowing the team to focus on building and designing engines. But while we may do some outsourcing for special needs, we will primarily remain a vertically integrated manufacturer.”
Triple A Results
The aim, according to Skolnik, is to provide our customers with “AAA – Any part, Any mix, Any day.” Blue Marlin will not only streamline production but it will also accelerate turnaround time,” he says. “The enhanced processes will give us more time to work on innovation and develop new technologies.”
Physical changes also bring cultural change. “We’re working with our team members to redefine job roles and engage them in making this transformation successful for them and for the company,” Skolnik says. “We’re setting up transition teams to keep everyone informed about the process and involved at every stage because it is important to be totally open and transparent about new developments. No job role will be the same when we move into the new facility, but we all understand that roles are subject to change in an evolving landscape.”
He adds, “There are many elements in motion that we are constantly evaluating. The challenge is to put together the right teams to prepare for the new operations and, at the same time, meet our commitments to customers in our existing facility. Our current processes are continuing at a regular cadence with the quality and expertise customers expect from Continental Motors® while this transformation is occurring.”
Added automation and productivity improvements can sometimes mean labor force reduction, but the company intends to maintain staff levels of about 400 (with modified responsibilities). While the plant primarily runs one full shift and small second one, productivity improvements will enable running two full shifts, with the potential to add a third shift when the new facility is fully operational.
Longstanding Ties to Mobile
In fact, Skolnik notes how their team members were one of the main reasons for keeping the new plant in Mobile. “We considered other locations, but we didn’t want to risk losing people or forcing team members to leave their homes and strong attachment to the Mobile community,” he says. “As a company, Continental Motors® been a big part of that community: we established our headquarters and main manufacturing plant in Mobile in 1966. We’re pleased to renew that commitment to the region and our great team members that have helped us achieve where we are today.”
Skolnik points out how it is a challenge to find the right people with the right skills. “Continental Motors® faces the same problem filling jobs every manufacturer does these days in times of low unemployment. Fortunately, we have a lot of good people already, and when we do need to hire, we look for people with the right mindsets and behaviors that fit our culture. Then we can expand upon the skill sets they already have with factory training to help them grow within the company,” Skolnik says.
Another advantage in maintaining existing ties is building upon the already thriving relationships with local and state government agencies. “The Alabama Department of Commerce and its AIDT (Alabama Industrial Development Training) workforce development agencies have been of great assistance to us,” Skolnik says. “We’ve received a number of grants and tax incentives. The community has been very supportive of us.”
Skolnik also credits the real estate development and investment firms Burton Property Group and the Stonemont Financial Group, as well as full-service construction firm, Clayco, as vital partners in making the Blue Martin project a reality. “We’ve put together an incredibly strong team, and we’re excited about getting Blue Marlin underway.”