In 2004, the Gill Corporation landed a key account. The manufacturer, based in El Monte, Calif., began supplying honeycomb, high-performance floor panels for the Airbus A380. Launched a decade ago, the double-deck A380 is the world’s largest aircraft, seating up to 853 passengers depending upon the configuration. The Gill Corporation earned business with the French aircraft manufacturer in part because it operates European facilities.

“Through our facility in Belfast, we were able to get some work on the Airbus A380, which we might not have been able to do as an American company,” says Stephen Gill, CEO and chairman of The Gill Corporation, which specializes in composite products for the commercial aircraft and aerospace industries. “In this market, there’s a reason to be in Europe: You get consideration you wouldn’t get in the U.S. The Airbus was not established and financially supported by Europeans to support Americans.”

Composites companies are increasingly building or acquiring international plants, but often not for the reasons that give off-shoring a bad rap – cheap labor and lower operating costs. For many, it’s a strategic way to penetrate new markets, increase sales or gain business with global OEMs.

The Gill Corporation purchased Insoleq, a company in Belfast, Ireland, in the early 1990s. At the time, Insoleq was a customer and agent for Gill products. “It gave us a shot in the international market,” says Gill. “It was a stepping stone and a learning experience.” The company acquired Alcore Brigantine in Anglet, France, in 2001.

“We’d all be naïve to think the world isn’t getting smaller and smaller,” says Steve Rooney, president and COO of Continental Structural Plastics (CSP), a leader in composite materials formulation, advanced product design and manufacturing technologies. CSP operates four international plants – two in Mexico, one in France and the newest, set to open in October, in China.

“The North American market continues to expand into new lightweight materials and technologies,” says Rooney. “But other areas of the world, such as China, have an increasing need for composites, too. It makes sense for us to be there and take advantage of current market conditions.”

Taking Aim at OEMs

One of CSP’s primary areas of focus is transportation. It provides thermoset and thermoplastic components, including Class A body panels, structural parts, underbody parts and interior body panels. The company, headquartered in Auburn Hills, Mich., opened its first international plant in 2002 in Tijuana, Mexico, for one reason – to partner with Toyota. “It was all about location, location, location,” says Rooney. “We needed to be there to link up with a major OEM.”