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USC bolsters aerospace program to meet industry needs

The first Boeing 787 Dreamliner built in North Charleston rolls out of the company’s final assembly plant earlier this year. (Photo/Andy Owens)
The first Boeing 787 Dreamliner built in North Charleston rolls out of the company’s final assembly plant earlier this year. (Photo/Andy Owens)
By Chuck Crumbo
Published Nov. 14, 2012

COLUMBIA, S.C. — With the aerospace industry growing in the Southeast, the University of South Carolina has named the first technical director of aerospace education and workforce development at the McNair Center for Aerospace Innovation and Research.

The position is made possible by a $5 million donation from Anita Zucker, chairwoman and CEO of The InterTech Group in North Charleston.

Zucker’s gift, announced Oct. 25, endows the Zucker Institute for Aerospace Innovation and the McNair Chair. The position is being filled by Zafar Gurdal, an aerospace scientist and engineer whose work focuses on developing and optimizing composite materials for use in the construction of airplanes.

Zafar Gurdal
Zafar Gurdal
The McNair Center was established in 2011 through a $5 million pledge from USC alumna Darla Moore in honor of Ronald McNair, a fellow Lake City native who died in the space shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986.

A native of Ankara, Turkey, Gurdal served about 20 years on the faculty of Virginia Tech. He still holds the title of professor emeritus at the Blacksburg, Va., university.

Since 2004, Gurdal has headed an effort at Delft University of Technology in The Netherlands to better align the aerospace program with what students need to succeed, both in academia and industry.

Having Boeing Co.’s 787 Dreamliner assembly plant in North Charleston, just a couple of hours down the road from the university, helped attract Gurdal.

“This is one of the reasons why I’m moving here,” Gurdal said.

“This is an area that’s going to be booming in the next 10 years.”

Besides Boeing, the Southeast is home to the new HondaJet plant in Greensboro, N.C., and Gulfstream headquarters in Savannah, Ga. Plane builders Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman also have facilities in the Peach State.

Florida is home to the Cape Canaveral and a number of aerospace firms. Earlier this year Airbus announced plans to build an assembly facility in Mobile, Ala., for the A320 passenger plane.

Gurdal will be interested in developing the technology to automate the manufacturing process so that Boeing can increase production of Dreamliners, which feature fuselages made of composite materials.

“They have such a huge backlog of planes that something has to be done — it’s ridiculous,” Gurdal said. “I cannot imagine how Boeing will continue to produce just 3.5 planes a month” at its North Charleston plant. “They certainly need to improve that number substantially to meet their demands.”

Boeing also assembles 787s at the company’s Everett, Wash., assembly facility. Together, the facilities produce 10 planes a month.

Back in June, the aerospace giant reported a backlog of 843 unfilled orders for the Dreamliner, which lists for $228 million.

Gurdal thinks the university should use its knowledge and research to drive economic development.

“If we can create technologies that can be transferred to industrial applications, then you’ve made it,” Gurdal said. “We certainly would like to educate students, we’d like to educate engineers that go to companies, but I think it is rather important that we also push the technology transfer.”

At Delft, professors are measured by how many startup companies they created with their students and how many patents they achieved, as well as the quality of their academic research and teaching, Gurdal said.

“I think that it’s rather important that we do that, otherwise we’ll always be accused of being in our ivory towers and doing research that nothing comes out of it,” he said.

Reach Chuck Crumbo at 803-401-1094, ext. 204.