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SC's new aeronautical center a place to train and inspire

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Mary Thornley can pinpoint the exact day when she realized South Carolina needed an aeronautical training center.

"It was Nov. 20, 2009 — the day Boeing broke ground on its 787 assembly building in North Charleston," said Thornley, president of Trident Technical College, referring to the aerospace giant's Dreamliner campus that now employs nearly 6,800 workers.

"I realized the whole state was going to be different from that day on," she said. "We had to step up our game."

A decade later, Thornley's vision has been realized with Friday's opening of the South Carolina Aeronautical Training Center at the two-year school's North Charleston campus off Rivers Avenue.

The nearly $80 million, 218,000-square-foot facility will train students and others for jobs with Boeing and other aerospace firms in the Palmetto State's fastest-growing industry segment. Aeronautics now boasts 400 firms and 22,000 jobs in South Carolina while contributing $19 billion a year to the economy.

"South Carolina's aerospace industry has grown over 25 percent since 2010," said Adrianne Beasley, director of SC Aerospace, a public-private collaborative. "Along with that growth comes the need for a skilled workforce today and a pipeline of talent in the future."

As the state's industrial landscape has broadened, so has the training center's mission. The addition in recent years of Lowcountry production sites for Volvo Cars and Mercedes-Benz Vans, joining BMW's plant in the Upstate, means the center will also include training for advanced manufacturing technologies.

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The center includes an aircraft ramp, two hangars with high bays to accommodate a variety of aircraft and large training aids, 22 classrooms, 25 specialty labs, 37 offices, meeting spaces, a cafe and catering kitchen.

The labs and classrooms are equipped with $14 million worth of cutting-edge, industry-standard equipment, including programmable robotics, 3-D printers and computer numerical control machines. There is also a composite materials labs where students will learn to manufacture and repair the structural materials used in airplanes, vehicles and boats.

On Friday, the college announced an educational partnership with France's Dassault Systemes, which develops design and engineering software used by manufacturers including Volvo, Mercedes-Benz and Boeing. Dassault will establish a "3-D Experience Center" at the college where students can become certified in using the software.

While the training center's ability to fill the current need for statewide aeronautics jobs is important, Thornley said it's just as vital to have a place that inspires future advanced manufacturing technicians. The center is configured so visiting school groups can tour the building and see the equipment while it's in use, igniting "a spark in young minds to pursue high-tech, in-demand jobs with high wage potential."

"Students don’t get excited about something until they can see, touch and experience it," Thornley said. "This is where that magic will happen."

The three-story building, designed by LS3P and T.Y. Lin|Lindbergh of Charleston, brings the college's aircraft assembly, maintenance and avionics programs — previously spread across two campuses and five buildings — to one location. About 5,370 students and 120 faculty and staff will use the new facility, which also includes space for ReadySC, the state's workforce training program.

Friday's opening ceremony featured several business and political leaders, including: Gov. Henry McMaster; Sen. Hugh Leatherman; Anita Zucker, CEO of the InterTech Group; Elliott Summey, chairman of Charleston County Council; Lane Ballard, vice president of 787 delivery and paint for Boeing's North Charleston campus; and Dean Marsh, managing director of Dassault Systemes.

Reach David Wren at 843-937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_

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