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Middle River aerospace parts maker crafts future under new foreign ownership

Middle River aerospace parts maker crafts future under new foreign ownership
MRAS, or Middle River Aerostructure Systems, makes jet engine parts for aircraft manufacturers. Assemblers Latrell Hicks, left, and Aaron Williams, work on transcowls in the A320 assembly area. GE Aviation recently sold the company to Singapore-based ST Engineering. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

A set of big blue arms moved swiftly back and forth applying carbon fiber over a half-pipe shaped mold and marking the start to the assembly line for vital engine housings for an Airbus A-320 passenger jet.

The transition to this multimillion-dollar, high-tech machinery in recent years at Middle River Aircraft Systems cut the number of eight-hour shifts needed to make each item from five to 1 1/2, efficiency that helped the specialized aircraft parts maker deliver more equipment — and attract the Singapore-based aerospace and engineering giant Singapore Technologies Engineering Ltd.

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ST Engineering closed this month on a $506 million purchase of the company, now renamed Middle River Aerostructure Systems, from GE Aviation, which had owned it since 1997. Company officials said the sale will give MRAS, already one of the region’s larger employers, the ability to grow more and expand into new lines, as well as add more maintenance work.

“We are on a growth path,” said Frank Dougherty, general manager and senior vice president of MRAS, ahead of a media tour of its nearly million-square-foot eastern Baltimore County operation to mark the acquisition. “This is a way into more expansion.”

Close to 900 people now work at MRAS, and the company is looking for more workers who are primarily hired in the region and trained for the jobs on-site. They’d like to add more parts to their roster, and more customers in addition to the major aircraft manufacturers Airbus, Boeing, Bombardier and others.

MRAS now designs and produces parts for around 10 different airplanes but primarily to complement GE jet engines only, something that could change under ST Engineering.

For the Singapore firm, the Baltimore facility — one of a half-dozen sites in the United States and about 40 around the globe — gives it expertise in a specific kind of equipment and capacity for more design, manufacturing and servicing of other products.

“We are always making sure we stay relevant,” said Serh Ghee Lim, president of aerospace for ST Engineering, who came this week to Middle River to meet employees.

MRAS primarily makes nacelles, which are housings for engines that perform different tasks from controlling air intake and noise to protecting the plane from errant engine blades. It also produces reverse thrusters used on the back of the nacelles to enhance the braking systems. MRAS makes different portions of the nacelle for different customers, and for wide-body and narrow airplanes, including business aircraft.

The company has been in Middle River for 90 years and traces its beginnings to the Glenn L. Martin Co. The massive plant, just west of Martin State Airport, made such iconic Martin flying boats as the M-130 used by Pan American Airways and the PBM Mariner patrol bomber used during World War II.

In 1995, what was by then Martin Marietta merged with Lockheed to become Lockheed Martin. MRAS became a GE subsidiary after a 1997 stock swap that split it from Lockheed Martin.

ST Engineering, with $6.7 billion in fiscal 2018 revenue, is one of the largest companies on the Singapore stock exchange. It needed permission from the federal government’s Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, which must approve acquisitions of U.S. companies by foreign entities with an eye toward national security.

The acquisition will allow to MRAS to continue to modernize. Equipment, including the nacelles for the A-320s, is designed on computers and fabricated with the aid of such high-technology as lasers as well as human labor. It now produces 60 such housings a month for Airbus.

“I’ve been here 36 years and we’ve added more new technology in the past five years to the program than all the 31 years before,” said Terry Vernes, MRAS’ director of process engineering and composite manufacturing. “We’ve added higher-tech jobs to work the machinery. … We have so many new programs ramping up and we’re hiring for them, too. ST will give us the ability to do even more.”

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