The aerospace and aeronautics markets can offer long-term rewards for risk-taking fabricators.
By Jill Lafferty
Following the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, astronaut Richard Hauck, commander of the first shuttle flight after the Challenger disaster, explored the idea of risk taking in an article in Air & Space magazine: Given the two disasters, is space exploration worth the risk?
He concluded, “Only by taking such risks is society rewarded with increased knowledge and a sense of forward motion. And that, in the end, is what makes the risk worthwhile.”
Innovators in the specialty fabrics industry who work in the aerospace and aeronautics markets haven’t traveled beyond the cruising altitude of a commercial flight—yet—but they may ask themselves a similar question: Are the rewards of these markets worth the risks?
Success sometimes requires high levels of front-end investment in equipment, materials and training. While everyone wants to make a quality product, these markets demand an uncompromising level of precision that can only occur within a particular organizational culture that takes time and effort to develop. All of this means that rewards are realized in the medium and long term, not the short term. But those who have had success in these markets say that the demand is only going to grow, and that by developing expertise in specific, high-tech areas, fabricators are better able to compete in the global marketplace.
“We’re an old-economy type industry, a cut-and-sew industry, but we sell to the very high-tech customers,” says Robert Rosania, IFM, CPP, and CEO of Ehmke Manufacturing Co. Inc. The Philadelphia, Pa.-based company fabricates acoustical and thermal blankets for aircraft, foreign object debris (FOD) covers and other custom projects. In 2011, Ehmke provided custom design and engineering for the interiors of the U.S. Marine Corps HMX-1 squadron (the squadron responsible for the transportation of the president of the United States and other VIPs) and reset the interiors of the helicopter and fixed wing fleet of the U.S. Department of State. Rosania credits years of focused development of Ehmke employees, their skills, and company competencies and processes for success in securing these kinds of projects.
“It’s much easier to make a commodity product than it is to make a custom product that goes into a high-tech industry,” he says, “but to survive, that’s how we’ve gone about it.”
Pundit chatter about government cutbacks and doomsday recession predictions could lead the casual observer to conclude that these markets are in the same drawn-out slump as the rest of the economy. While the NASA budget and military cutbacks and consolidation are concerning to anyone whose livelihood depends on those kinds of contracts, industry veterans point to strong sectors within the overall markets. For example, commercial satellites are into their fourth or fifth generation, and they are fungible, says Brent Anderson, engineering manager with Aerospace Fabrication & Materials LLC, Farmington, Minn., which specializes in the design, fabrication and installation of multilayer insulation (MLI) blankets for aerospace and cryogenic applications. The more interconnected the world gets, the higher the demand for communication technology that depends on satellites.
“Space entrepreneurs are forging ahead in the commercial space field,” Anderson says. “In launch vehicles, several contenders are moving forward and making progress. Other small firms and universities are finding ways into space with CubeSats or other NanoSats [miniature satellites]. The traditional aerospace firms are still building a fair amount of commercial and government satellites for geosynchronous orbit.”
Per Lindstrand, founder of Lindstrand Technologies Ltd., Oswestry, U.K., says that demand for advanced lighter-than-air airships and aerostats is at an all-time high, and this won’t change as long as the U.S. military is engaged in Afghanistan.
“One of our biggest problems is finding fabric, because the fabric that is helium-proof is very difficult to make and there are only a few players who can do it, so at the moment there is a shortage of qualified fabrics for aeronautics, and the waiting list is long,” he says.
Military and commercial needs for mobility and speed give fabric an edge over other materials, Lindstrand explains. “Mobility means inflatable hangars and aerostats and so on,” he says. “As a recent example, in the shooting war over Libya, the Swedish Air Force used inflatable hangars at its bases in Italy.”
While global political and military events create demand for certain fabricated products, they also raise challenges. Anderson says one of the biggest obstacles to the industry in the United States is the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), the federal regulations that control the export and import of defense-related articles and services.
“The current system impedes the use of U.S.-made parts around the world to the point where other countries have created alternatives and shut out U.S. companies,” he says. “Many of these items are not critical to national security, but because they can be used on rockets, have been lumped together on the munitions list by the Department of State. These regulations need to be reformed, and the sooner the better.”
Dave Cadogan, director of research and technology at ILC Dover, says that while military cutbacks are happening, compared to the overall market size there is still a lot of work available. Based in Frederica, Del., ILC Dover is best known for the design and development of NASA space suits, but the company also fabricates lighter-than-air structures and inflatable products with a variety of space exploration applications.
“We remain busy at ILC because a lot of the products we develop and manufacture are a cost effective/high performance option,” Cadogan says. “NASA has been altering its list of objectives and absorbing some cutbacks, but again, they still have a lot on their agenda to keep industry engaged. One of their charters is to support the development of the commercial space industry, so by definition it is an opportunity for fabricators.”
AR Tech is the technical and aerospace division of A&R Tarpaulins Inc. of Fontana, Calif. While one part of the company is busy manufacturing truck covers and tarps, the aerospace division fabricates products such as payload fairing blankets, which protect satellites during launches, and electromagnetic interference (EMI) barriers used for security and protection. Bud Weisbart, IFM, vice president of A&R Tarpaulins, notes that many of the skills—heat sealing, sewing, taping and assembling—cross over from one application to the other, “but the level of commitment to precision is exponentially more critical in putting the [aerospace] products together.” To maintain such a precision culture within the company, all employees are trained to work to the aerospace division’s standards. An employee working on truck covers today is completely acculturated to move into aerospace tomorrow, Weisbart says.
“It drives up your costs a bit, and as a result you may not be as competitive in a commodity market as you used to be, so you have to decide if you are willing to do that,” he says.
In the mid-1990s, Ehmke Manufacturing made the commitment to evolve the company’s processes and competencies so that it could compete as a diversified technical fabric end-product manufacturer. Rosania says the evolution started with hiring the right people and continued with a laser focus on processes and practices, becoming ISO 9001 and AS 9100 certified and adopting the concepts of lean manufacturing (a production practice that considers the expenditure of resources for any goal other than the creation of value for the end customer to be wasteful).
“It’s not one of those things where you come in one morning, open the doors of your office and say ‘We’re going to be a world-class quality organization,’” Rosania says. “It starts with the cultural piece. If you don’t have that buy-in, commitment or level of trust of employees, no matter what the ownership wants, it won’t get accomplished. Once our folks started seeing the result of that, and in turn seeing the benefit of increased compensation, increased revenue to the company, it’s a self-sustaining process.”
Equipment and materials—especially when combined with today’s tight credit market—can be another barrier to entering the high-tech markets. When a specialized fabric can cost in the neighborhood of $900 a linear foot, and orders need to be placed months in advance, cash flow and quality assurance are paramount, Weisbart notes. When Lindstrand Technologies won the contract to design and manufacture the parachute for the Beagle 2 spacecraft that landed on Mars in 2003, the challenges included developing a fabric testing facility that could simulate the atmosphere on Mars and ensuring that the entire parachute was sterile. This required advanced in-house facilities, a high-altitude chamber and the construction of a special clean room.
“That parachute had to be built to highly exacting standards, but then how many parachutes such as this will you make in a lifetime?” Lindstrand says. “We have built one, and we’d like to get an order for the next one.”
Contracts with the military, NASA, or the large aeronautic and aerospace companies can be complicated by intimidating mazes of certifications and bidding processes. But within these specialized markets, clients are often more likely to value a company’s proven core competencies and ability to provide efficient solutions than they are a low bid.
“We’re moving further away from those products that are strictly bought on a low price best delivery basis,” Rosania says. “Our company thrives on engaging customers, understanding what they want and then providing a comprehensive custom solution.”
Aerospace Fabrication & Materials was founded by Anderson and his partners after they left a company that decided to focus on non-aerospace product lines. Beginning with contacts gained through their prior employment, the partners were able to expand their business through word of mouth. Promoting the company, Anderson says, is a balance between presenting a potential client with the company’s current capabilities and accomplishments with what it can offer in terms of new techniques that are faster, better and cheaper.
“Recently we’ve been expanding using our website and other targeted marketing, but word of mouth is still a big part,” he says. “You know you’re doing things right when your customers recommend you to other groups within their organization.”
Lindstrand Technologies moved into high-tech fabrication from the hot air balloon industry (in addition to his aeronautical engineering expertise, Per Lindstrand is renowned for his record-breaking trans-oceanic hot air balloon flights).
“We do a lot of consultancy for various people with a problem that can be solved with fabric engineering, and normally that ends up with an order at the end of it,” Lindstrand says.
Cadogan says that experience across technologies and markets helps ILC Dover leverage solutions from past products into current projects and client needs.
“We have excellent materials development and soft goods manufacturing facilities, but it is our people that impress our customers the most,” he says. “When people engage ILC they quickly find that we are a problem-solving organization.”
The future of the aeronautics and aerospace industries in general, and high-tech fabrication markets specifically, may well depend on public-private partnerships: a merging of market demands and returns on investment with a societal desire for forward motion, as noted by astronaut Richard Hauck.
“The time will come when just about any private citizen will have the opportunity to make the trip [into space],” Anderson says. “I think the best historical model for this is the airline industry itself. If you compare early airplane development and spacecraft development you can draw several parallels. In terms of the private space sector we are pretty close to the barnstorming days of the 1920s.”