A Spacial Economy, and the Benefits Thereof

Before the 1980s, the solitary state of Kentucky in the USA was known for its agriculture, coal and bourbon trade. With the arrival of two automobile giants GM Motors and Toyota, the state was transformed over the next two decades into a tech hub with its primary GDP pouring in from satellite development. Currently Kentucky is the third largest producer of space tech and one of the largest exporters of aerospace and automobile technology. The state’s median household income nearly quadrupled in a 10-year period and is still climbing strong today. The state redefined itself from agriculture and mining to tech which is truly an inspiration to South Africa. It also just so happens that Kentucky is the home of Morehead State University, MEDO’s partner in Space Trek. Carla de klerk investigates the state and what it can teach South Africa.

Kentucky’s export market is booming, and technology manufacturing is leading the way. Promisingly, members of that sector see economic sunny skies for at least the next decade. The total value of all products manufactured in Kentucky and sold abroad in 2014 was $27.5 billion That’s a nearly 9 percent increase from 2013, and it continues a trend in Kentucky export growth, which now routinely establishes new highs. Since 2011, the value of goods exported from the state has grown 36.8 percent. Half of Kentucky’s exports are transportation equipment, divided between $7.8 billion in aerospace parts and products, and $5.9 billion in motor vehicles, parts, bodies and trailers.

“Aerospace is an enormous part of the US economy, which is still one of the world’s major economies. Aerospace and defence aerospace technologies account for about 15% of the US GDP, that is 15% of one of the world’s largest economies. Kentucky, is generally known for thorough bred horses, coal, bourbon, they are also now in aerospace. As of 2013 they became known as an aerospace state in terms of it being the primary economic driver and it had a lot to do with the automotive industry and aerospace currently is over a trillion dollar industry in the state of Kentucky. And that allows them to currently enjoy a rank of the third in the US, with Washington State with Boeing, California with Silicone Valley and Kentucky now as number three in the US in terms of aerospace exports. Part of this is owing to microtech technology work in micro electronics and this was also pushed forward by the automotive industry. If you look at leading automobiles today, GM and ISUZU, there’s something like 25-30 micro devices in every single vehicle and a tremendous amount of number of micro electronics. Half a dozen maybe ten or twelve micro controllers and micro processors, so the same technology that has revolutionised the telecommunications industry with cellphones has revolutionised the automobile industry and it has also bled out to other industries to help out the aerospace industry.” Dr Ben Malphrus, director of Morehead State University’s Space Science Centre explains the technology boom.

A space economy built on an automobile industry? It is also thus no suprise that ISUZU Trucks is sponsoring South Africa’s first Space Programme. “Why is ISUZU trucks involved in a project like this? If you know from driving past them on the road, these trucks have lots of technology in them. They require many types of electrical inputs from many engineers. They need maths, science, technology, design etc. And the only reason I can stand here and run a successful company, is because we have those type of people in our midst. A lot of the people in the general market place don’t see under the skin what happens. Whatever you see, observe or sit on today, that product got brought to you somehow, generally by truck. We are a Japanese-based company that are in 150 countries in the world, and in most places we are market leaders in our field and ISUZU is very well represented. So from this perspective for us, I’m recruiting for the next generation, who’ll be standing here in my job and all the other people in my company,” ISUZU Trucks CEO Craig Uren explains.

Looking at South African employment statistics, a quarter of the country is unemployed. Also, at the 2016 State of the Nation Address, President Jacob Zuma indicated that there will be an influx of importing individuals in scarce skills realted areas.

What technology sales mean to Kentucky’s economy, is 127,000 export-related jobs in the commonwealth paying an average of $56,000 per year including benefits. Among those are 50,200 jobs directly tied to exports that pay an average of $68,100 per year. Kentucky’s median household income for the five-year period from 2009 to 2013 was $43,036, according to the Census Bureau*. Now that is inspirational, imagine if we could utilise training to create that magnitude of jobs in scarce skills areas in South Africa.

Pumping billions of dollars into Kentucky’s economy and providing thousands of jobs, the aerospace/aviation footprint is expanding in almost every sector, from parts manufacturing to supply, from air freight service to education and workforce development. “We’re not developing enough engineers. We’ve actually lost some opportunities to bring some international and national engineering firms into Kentucky because we don’t have enough engineers. So we need to fix that. But then we also need more technology-oriented students who are willing to go into advanced manufacturing. And of course, mechanics. Boeing has identified a need for about 25,000 pilots a year for the next 20 years or more and an equal number of mechanics. For every pilot sitting in the cockpit seat there are about 6,000 jobs standing behind him that made the airplane, make the system work and everything else that ties into it. Our economy hugely depends on aviation,” Robert Riggs, pilot, flight instructor, a founder and current board member of the Kentucky Aviation Association explains the potential of developing STEM skills*.

“What we’re doing is building a new industry in Kentucky around entrepreneurial space — not aerospace — it’s entrepreneurial space,” Kris Kimel, Kentucky Science and Technology Corp (KTSTC) emphasising the importance of small satellite development*.

Dr Malphrus, satellite aficionado and Morehead State Space Science Center explains the use of these nano satellites, “These small satellites have a gazillion applications. They can respond to radio frequency identification, or RFID, signals. This allows them to fly over warehouses and scan the inventory from outer space. Another potential application would see the satellites scanning entire fleets of seagoing ships so shipping firms know exactly where everything is.” Just imagine the possibilities should we embrace satellite technology as MEDO has in South Africa!

“The smallest satellites, called cube satellites, can also take images of things like natural disasters, refreshing every 15 minutes, where Google refreshes every 18 months. All this work is done at Morehead’s state-funded $16 million Space Science Centre building, which is helping the state become known as a widely recognised magnet for aerospace innovation.” Dr Malphrus explains*. “Kentucky is becoming an aerospace hub.”

At the Space Science Centre in Morehead, students and scientists work hand-in-hand to develop nano satellites. On the university level, some of the state’s premier programs include Eastern Kentucky University’s comprehensive aviation program, including a top-ranked professional pilots program. Even high school students are joining the aerospace ranks. The Institute of Aerospace Education (IAE) is a nonprofit devoted to improving student success in the vital science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and fostering the growth of aerospace careers in Kentucky. The organisation interacts directly with students in 23 high schools, providing hands-on experiences by partnering with state agencies, educational institutions and corporations*.

Thanks to a skilled workforce, excellent training programmess, strong logistics and a focus on innovation, Kentucky’s aerospace industry is expected to reach even greater heights. “This is a very exciting time for our state,” Malphrus says. “The sky is truly the limit for what we can do.” 

Starting with something as small as a partnership with ISUZU Trucks, we are setting up an entire generation of young women for success. After all, training is only the start in order to mimic Kentucky’s inspirational story of a spacial economy.


Kentucky’s exports are flying high with aerospace:

Kentucky’s growing aviation, aerospace industry getting renewed attention:

Kentucky’s expanding aerospace industry could move state’s economy into a new direction:

Think aerospace? Think Kentucky:

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