Chinese firm to locate small manufacturing plant in Lawrence as part of deal with local aviation company

A local firm and a Chinese company have reached a deal to open a Lawrence manufacturing plant to build propellers that will power everything from drones to airboats to experimental aircraft.

Lawrence-based DARcorporation and China-based Sterna Composite Aircraft Inc. have agreed to a joint venture that is expected to create 10 new Lawrence manufacturing jobs by the end of the year, but perhaps dozens more in future years.

Sterna currently has a Chinese manufacturing plant that produces composite propellers for the aviation industry. Sterna, however, wants to sell more products in the U.S.

“They really want to target the U.S. market, and they have found that it is better to be able to say “built in America,'” said Willem Anemaat, president of DARcorporation.

DARcorporation has done design and consulting work for Sterna on several projects over the last six years, Anemaat said. Anemaat approached Sterna about considering Lawrence for the company’s U.S. operations.

Sterna officials visited Lawrence last week, and the two companies agreed to join forces to create a new venture that will operate under the name Sterna Composite Aircraft USA.

Anemaat said the new company hasn’t settled on a Lawrence location to house the manufacturing facility. He said the company has begun looking for a 10,000 square-foot space that would be ready to begin production by early 2018.

The company produces propellers that are made out of a composite material that is lighter than traditional steel propellers. Thus far, the company focuses on smaller segments of the aviation industry. Those include small ultralight planes that amateur pilots often assemble in their garages. The company also has a line of propellers for airboats, drones and some smaller airborne devices.

Anemaat said the company’s longer range plans include becoming certified by the Federal Aviation Administration to produce propellers for larger aircraft. The lightweight design of the composite props could be a selling point within the aviation industry.

“That is definitely a longer term goal for us,” Anemaat said.

Other product possibilities also are likely to emerge. Sterna president Wei Zheng said in a release that forming a partnership with a U.S. company that has expertise in design should give the company a “unique advantage” in producing both propeller and airframe products in the U.S. market.

Anemaat said hiring will begin later this year for the approximately 10 manufacturing positions. Anemaat said preliminary projections call for the company to add another 10 employees in 2019, if the company meets its sales goals.

DARcorporation will continue to be based in west Lawrence and will continue to do engineering, design and consulting work for a variety of firms in the aviation industry. At some point, though, Anemaat said DARcorporation may seek to co-locate with Sterna in a larger facility.

DARcorporation previously has expressed a desire to have a facility at the Lawrence Municipal Airport. The company in 2009 was close to signing a deal to build a facility at the airport that would create prototype aircraft. That deal never materialized, but city officials did spend more than $1 million extending city water and sewer service to the airport to accommodate more industrial style development at the airport.

Anemaat said this new project may eventually cause him to restart discussion with city officials about locating at the airport, which is in North Lawrence.

City officials, along with leaders from the Lawrence chamber of commerce and the Economic Development Corporation of Lawrence & Douglas County met with Sterna officials last week to help convince the company to locate in Lawrence.