QUERETARO, Mexico In one part of this central Mexico city, technicians overhaul commercial aircraft engines and landing gear. Across town, engineers assemble fuselages for one of the most modern business aircraft on Earth, the Learjet 85.
Industrializing nations like Brazil and China get a lot of attention for their thriving aerospace sectors. But Mexico's aerospace industry also has taken flight, with a lot less world notice.
More than 260 aerospace companies now operate in Mexico, exporting some $4.3 billion in aircraft and parts last year. The Mexican government has set a target of $12 billion in such exports by 2020, a figure that would surpass aerospace exports from Brazil and Spain.
Major clusters of aerospace companies have settled in the Tijuana-Mexicali corridor along the U.S. border, in the city of Chihuahua in northwest Mexico, and surrounding this high desert hub in the geographical center of the country. Smaller clusters have formed in Monterrey in the northeast and in the port city of Guaymas on the Gulf of California in Sonora state.
Local officials hope that one day Queretaro (pronounced keh-REH-tah-roh) will be uttered in the same breath as aviation centers like Seattle and Wichita in the United States, Montreal in Canada, and Toulouse in France.
Unlike other up-and-coming aerospace powers, Mexico neither supplies its own defense needs nor produces its own aircraft. But just about every component imaginable for jetliners and helicopters can be manufactured in Mexico today, including jet turbines and fuselages.
It's only a matter of time before the nation may design its own aircraft, experts here say.
In an office in the National Aeronautics University of Queretaro, Rector Jorge Gutiérrez de Velasco leans back and reflects on Mexico's aerospace achievements.
"History tells us that clusters take decades to take shape. Then as they develop, advancing along with Mexican engineering, development processes, educational and economic capacities and so forth, maybe we can talk about producing an Aztec Uno or a Huitzilopochtli," Gutiérrez said, reaching for possible names for an aircraft from his nation's history prior to the Spanish conquest.
First off, though, he said the nation wants to see a new foreign aircraft, no matter the brand, take off with 50 percent of its components "Made in Mexico." Big U.S. companies with operations in Mexico include Hawker Beechcraft, Gulfstream Aerospace, General Electric, Textron and Honeywell. France's Safran Group, Canada's Bombardier Aerospace, Netherlands-based Fokker and Spain's Aernnova, a major supplier to Airbus, Bombardier and Brazil's Embraer, also have set up production in Mexico.
Some 30 foreign companies have operations in this city of 1.8 million people.
Mexico has an edge in human capital. On a per capita basis, it graduates three times more engineers than the United States. Some 30 percent of Mexico's 745,000 university students are enrolled in engineering and technology fields, and 114,000 of them graduate yearly. Technicians, though, often have to be trained in-house in specialized processes even after receiving training elsewhere.
Currently, Mexico's aerospace sector employs 31,000 workers. The goal is to have 110,000 jobs in aerospace by 2020, said Manuel Sandoval Rios of ProMexico, a trade promotion agency.
That compares with some 335,000 jobs in auto manufacturing and auto parts.
As the aerospace sector expands, authorities hope to expand the number of foreign and local companies that provide parts. Only a few Mexican companies now manufacture key components.
"The challenge now, just as it once was in the automotive sector, is to ramp up the supply chain and, when possible, develop national suppliers," Sandoval said.
"The global industry faces stresses because it can't meet demand from the major airlines, and the big companies have to look for more efficient and competitive, low-cost suppliers," he said.
"That's where Mexico enters into the equation."