Airbus Americas CEO Touts New 'Henry Ford'-Like Satellite Assembly Line in U.S.

July 22, 2019

By Rebecca Heilweil

As Airbus and OneWeb announced a new, satellite manufacturing plant on Florida's Space Coast Monday, Airbus Americas CEO Jeffrey Knittel told Cheddar that the company is ready to mass produce the orbital communications devices in an attempt to make internet connectivity more accessible across the globe.

"We're going from bespoke satellites, that often took months — if not years — to build, to a situation where we intend to be building two satellites a day," Knittel told Cheddar on Monday. He said the company hopes to produce more than 600 satellites in the next two-and-half years, and compared the facility to a "Henry Ford line of cars" for satellites.

"It'll put the world in the position to receive high speed internet. We think that makes a difference," said Knittel. "We believe investing in innovation is a good thing for the planet. We also think it's a good economic model."

The facility's opening was attended by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, Sen. Rick Scott, and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, among others. Those officials framed the new operation as an opportunity to boost Florida's commercial space industry and a chance to address the digital divide.

"We're here in the Space Coast, we're going to create 250 jobs right here, and an additional 3,000 in terms of the supply chain," said Knittel. "Twenty years ago, the Space Coast, quite honestly — after Apollo, after the Shuttle — slowed down dramatically. We want to be part of that revitalization."

Airbus is joining a slew of other aerospace and space companies pursuing similar satellite projects based in the Sunshine State, where NASA operates the Kennedy Space Center. There are more than 17,000 aerospace-related companies operating in Florida now, according to the state.

The company's satellite venture will also face tough competition from companies like SpaceX and Amazon, which are similarly looking to place devices in Earth's lower orbits in efforts to boost global internet connectivity.

In May, SpaceX's Falcon rocket launched 60 satellites into its StarLink constellation, a network that could eventually boast up to 12,000 in total. Amazon is also pursuing its own satellite constellation, and has plans for 3,200 of them meant to expand broadband access and boost the e-commerce giant's commanding web services business.

As Airbus is doubling-down on satellites, its main competitor in the airplane manufacturing business — Boeing — is struggling to recoup business following the fatal crashes of two of its 737 MAX planes in recent months.

But Knittel said Airbus hasn't necessarily changed its strategy in direct response to those crashes.

"What we're doing hasn't changed over the last year," he said. "We think we have a best-in-class single aisle product, and because of that, we think we will continue to have a significant market share. And ultimately, we will continue to meet customers' needs."

Still, Airbus is now set to outpace Boeing as the world's largest jet maker.

The company also has its hands in the emerging urban, aerial vehicle sector. Airbus has committed to launching Voom, a city helicopter transit service, in 25 cities by 2025, with hopes that it will lay the groundwork for future, electric-powered aerial vehicles program.

"It's not just Voom. It's our helicopter manufacturing capabilities. It's our understanding of the technologies. We've actually launched some smaller, electric-car types of airplane[s], so to speak," he said. "We'll continue to innovate."