$1 million-plus expansion on tap for Douglas County manufacturer of aviation parts; job totals to hit 150

photo by: Nick Krug

McFarlane Aviation mechanic Andy Pritchard hunches over the engine of a Cessna 337 Spymaster during an annual inspection at the aviation parts and production facility on Thursday, May 5, 2016, at McFarlane Aviation, 696 East 1700 Road in Vinland. McFarlane is in the process of having a new facility constructed to expand its operation.

An aviation company in the tiny unincorporated Douglas County community of Vinland continues to make a case that it is one of the best high-tech success stories in the county. McFarlane Aviation Products has filed plans for a $1.4 million plant expansion that should easily add another 50 jobs to the company.

Plans filed with the county’s planning department call for a new 24,000-square-foot manufacturing facility that will produce a variety of parts for small to medium-sized airplanes and jets. It will be the third million-dollar-plus expansion the company has undertaken this decade at its rural site between Lawrence and Baldwin City in southern Douglas County.

When we reported on the company in 2011, it had 38 employees. Chief Executive Officer Dave McFarlane said the company had a little more than 100 employees and he was confident that number would grow.

“It won’t be too long before we are at 150 employees,” McFarlane told me.

The strong growth has come about because the company, founded in the late 1980s, had the foresight to get into a good industry, McFarlane said. Airplanes are expensive to buy, so owners aren’t eager to get rid of them and buy another one. Fortunately, airplanes also are designed to last a long time — if you maintain them. That opens up a big opportunity for companies that make replacement parts for airplanes.

“The big advantage we have is that an aircraft is a durable product,” McFarlane said. “They have a service life of 80 years, if you take care of them.”

McFarlane Aviation now produces 2,500 parts that can be used on a variety of aircraft. For years the business has mainly focused on parts for the smaller two-to-four seat planes used by private pilots, and like the ones that take off and land on the grass airstrip at the Vinland airport, which is connected to McFarlane’s business. But more recently the company has started making parts for bigger aircraft, including some of the package-hauling planes used by FedEx, McFarlane said. The company also is doing some work for the aircraft manufacturers themselves, producing parts that are used as original equipment on the planes.

The business has quite a few high-tech elements to it, because very few people are really excited about riding on a low-tech airplane. There are parts designers and machinists who require quite a bit of technical skill, and there also are administrators who deal with the Federal Aviation Administration requirements, marketing professionals that sell to the company’s approximately 26,000 customers, and a host of other positions.

But the business also needs lots of assembly workers. The company is music to the ears of an economic development professional because it is a business that has to rely on a fair number of people.

“Our type of manufacturing requires a lot of assembly labor,” McFarlane said, noting that the company produces metal, plastic, cloth and rubber parts. “It is just things that take humans to do. It is hard to automate.”

If you are having a hard time picturing where McFarlane Aviation is, that is probably a sign that you haven’t eaten enough homemade chicken and noodles and fruit pie. McFarlane is right across the road from the Vinland Fairgrounds, which is about 12 miles south of downtown Lawrence on Douglas County Route 1055. The fair takes place in August every year and never features any of your traditional amusement park rides. Instead, it features lots of food made by local community organizations. It also has a ton of antique tractors, which I long thought were there to pull me out of my chair after the chicken and noodles and pie. In actuality, they are there for one of the larger antique tractor pulls in the area.

It is hard to find a Douglas County community that is more old school than Vinland. That does create some challenges for a growing manufacturing company, McFarlane said. For example, the company has to build its own sewer systems rather than just hooking into a modern city system. It also has to go through some processes to convert its power supply to the type of three-phase power that is often used by manufacturers.

But the company obviously has no plans to leave Vinland, and McFarlane expects other expansion will occur on the site in the future. He said being in the rural setting has provided more benefits than challenges.

“Our people like to work in this area,” McFarlane said. “It is a nice country atmosphere, and being away from the hustle and bustle of the city has it advantages.”

McFarlane Aviation in the last couple of months added Lawrence resident Scott Still, a former top executive with Sargent Aerospace & Defense, to serve as its president, McFarlane said.

McFarlane hopes to be under construction on the new building this summer, given that the site already has the necessary zoning approvals in place. It requires only some technical design approvals from the county’s planning department. He hopes to have the building completed in the fall.

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