April 01, 2013
In the past decade, Mexico's welcome mat for the aerospace establishment has found an industry eager to manufacture “south of the border.”
The obvious attraction is Mexico's lower wage-structure: some say that in Mexico manufacturers pay a tenth of what equivalent assembly jobs cost in the U.S.; others cite a differential of about a third from what is paid in Europe. This discrepancy is best explained by the costs of different skill levels, and by a hesitancy to be too specific on a subject that raises political hackles back home.
But lower wages tell only part of the story for why Mexico, a nation of 115 million, now counts 270 aerospace factories within its borders. On national and state levels, the country is aggressively pursuing “high-tech” aerospace jobs as part of a broadening of its industrial base beyond automobiles and electronics, for which it is already a major producer. U.S. shoppers may think of Mexico mainly in terms of summer vegetables in the winter, but the World Bank reports that industrial products account for 90% of its export earnings. The bank ranks Mexico as the world's 13th largest economy in nominal terms and No. 11 in purchasing power. “Hecho en Mexico”—Made in Mexico—is more common everywhere, including in aerospace.
The aerospace influx has not happened overnight. Its roots date to the mid-1970s when U.S. companies, a mix of multinationals and lower-tier suppliers, began sending basic parts manufacturing and assembly tasks across the border, mostly to border towns like Tijuana and Mexicali but also deeper into the country to cities like Monterrey. Service operations followed, as did company research activities.
However, it has been in the past decade that Mexico's aerospace manufacturing growth has mushroomed. Political reform led it to pursue a global free trade agenda vigorously and its 1994 signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) benefitted Mexico greatly. Still, it took about a decade for the aerospace sector to take off. Until 2004, growth was scattered, says Queretaro state Gov. Jose Calzada. Not anymore. “We've seen incredible changes in just the last five years,” he says.
The boom times are a testament to Mexico's geography, its embrace of free trade and adoption of legal mechanisms that provide a “soft landing” for foreign-owned factories. Local leaders clear red tape and amaze U.S. and European executives at how quickly they can put up factories. A typical response comes from Peter Huij, a senior Fokker Aerostructures executive in Chihuahua, about how quickly the company went from bare earth in May 2011 to a completed 75,000-sq.-ft. factory in November: “It would be impossible in Europe.”
Behind all of this is Mexico's Maquiladora factory system for supporting foreign companies, which allows them to control their own destiny, importing raw materials such as aerospace-quality alloys, or wiring and then exporting the finished product tax-free. Foreign manufacturers commonly turn to a large service provider—Intermex and American Industries Group are leaders for the aerospace sector—that lease buildings to their clients and handle their human resources, tax and other business needs under Mexican law. About 80% of the aerospace companies in Mexico use such services. Of the 36 Maquiladoras registered by the Mexican government last year, six were in aerospace, including a GKN Aerospace plant in Mexicali, Latecoere in Hermosillo, coatings specialist Ellison Surface Technologies and Rolls-Royce turbine supplier JJ Churchill in Guaymas and a fourth division for Zodiac in Chihuahua.