September 03, 2012
Credit: GRIFFON AEROSPACE
Today, “build it and they will come” is largely frowned on as a way of doing business in aerospace. But it has worked for Griffon Aerospace, a low-cost, high-volume manufacturer of unmanned aircraft.
Madison, Ala.-based Griffon is close to building its 3,000th MQM-170A Outlaw under contracts to provide target services to the U.S. Army and others for air-defense training. The company is ramping up production of a second-generation Outlaw G2 and beginning construction of its first twin-engine aircraft, as a precursor to a larger vehicle.
The birth of Griffon in 1994 “was a mixture of heavy doses of ignorance, insanity and innovation,” says CEO Larry French. The company's first venture was the Lionheart, a six-seat kitplane he designed to fly his family between Huntsville, Ala., and Pennsylvania. “I designed an aircraft able to carry a family of six a long distance. Then I sold some and found I had started an aircraft company.”
After a couple of accidents and a downturn in the economy, the market for the Lionheart dried up. French went on to build and fly a prototype remotely piloted vehicle on a shoestring, initially for a larger Huntsville-based company that intended to bid for a U.S. Army target services contract. But when the request for proposals was issued in 2003, Griffon decided to bid for the contract itself, and won.
In addition to building up to 60 Outlaws a month, the contract required the company to set up a logistics system to provide pilots and operate the aircraft around the world. An experienced aerospace engineer, French says setting up for high-volume, low-cost production “just about did me in.” Citing early incidents of employees “smoking dope, stealing . . . and fights on the shop floor,” he says building a reliable workforce was the biggest challenge. “We had to hire and fire until we distilled out a confident group of ethical people who would work for a reasonable wage.”
Building a high-volume airframe at an affordable price requires innovation not only in design of the product, but in all dimensions of the business, says French. “You need innovation in contracting, accounting, even support,” he says, adding that Griffon's “way-out-of-the-box” thinking on how to get aircraft and pilots to where they are needed has cut logistics costs 40-50%.