By Matt Smith, Director, Industry & Resource Development
Historically, the phrase “high-technology” has been attributed to computer technology (hard and software), communications, e-commerce, medical device and numerous other business sectors. Outside our industry, aerospace has not been considered in high-tech discussions (due to a lack of understanding) yet aerospace has been a practitioner of same from its inception. The high-profile development of the 787 Dreamliner was the public announcement that our industry is a major player in technology and innovation for the present and the future; this includes the direct application of materials, processes and skills blended with the incorporation of historical high-tech resources.
The development of new materials for commercial applications began in the late 1980’s and was demonstrated by the opening of the Toray Composites America (TCA) plant to supply material for the 777 vertical stabilizer. Aerospace brought the first commercial pre-pregger to the United States; TCA. Today, decades later, the use of this “new” material has expanded into sporting goods, medical devices, maritime, wind energy, automotive and entire aircraft structures.
Production increases for the 737 were made possible by lean manufacturing concepts and the application of automation. A local firm, Electroimpact, began working on Low Voltage Electromagnetic Riveting technology and delivered fabrication tools to Textron in 1990; the tools remain in use today.
Today EI has over 700 employees firmwide with operations in three locations and a major role in assembly technology with multiple airframers. EI supplied the automated fiber placement (AFP) heads for the 787 fuselage structure and the 777X wing skins and multiple tools to Airbus, from the single-aisle A320 family to the 21st century A380 flagship and new-generation A350 XWB. Other global leaders in process automation have established themselves locally. MTorres (Spain) is building their US Innovation Center in Everett; they will supply automated tooling for the 777X wing spars and stringers and will also develop Everett as the center for their aerospace industry work. Kuka Systems (Germany) is working on the 777X Fuselage Automated Upright Build (FAUB). The significant capital investments being made in Everett for 777X wing fabrication will benefit future developments in aerospace, be they the New Market/Middle of the Market Airplane (MOM) or further developments on the 777. It is an interesting comparison to note that while automotive led aerospace in the adoption of automated assembly processes, it is the reverse for materials; aerospace leads automotive in the adoption of composite/carbon fiber materials.
The on-going success of new processes and materials is dependent on a workforce with the requisite skills. Snohomish County, as well as the State of Washington, has an emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) curriculum at the K-12 level to develop technical interests at the earliest opportunity. Community/technical colleges have collaborated with industry to add training in composite repair and mechatronics. Washington State University (WSU) and the University of Washington (UW) are investing in larger engineering programs (more seats) and larger instructional facilities; each university has recently invested +/- $50 million in new buildings to serve Snohomish County companies and residents. The colleges and universities are individually and jointly developing programs in Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS). As an example, WSU Everett took second place behind the Rzeszow University of Technology (Poland) in the 2016 International Mars Rover competition. K-12 schooling, higher education and the development of UAS training is supportive of aerospace activity in the region. Amazon, headquartered in Seattle, established Amazon Robotics in 2003 to automate their fulfillment centers and is now extending that automation to drones for package delivery.
Blue Origin, also headquartered in Seattle and funded by Amazon-founder Jeff Bezos, is developing reusable spaceflight technology. The technical talent pool located here attracted the attention of SpaceX, which recently opened an engineering center. Other New Space companies located here include Planetary Resources (mining), Stratolaunch (low-earth orbit launch), Tethers Unlimited (satellites), Spaceflight (lauch services) and Aerojet Rocketdyne (propulsion). EASC recently received inquiries from two start-up companies searching for a location supportive of their technologies; one for drones, the other propulsion systems. In both cases, our prominence in commercial aircraft drew their attentions to the region. You will find Snohomish County companies active in marine space as well. Oceangate has developed manned composite submersibles capable of depths to 4,000 meters. Kongsberg (Norway HQ) makes autonomous underwater vehicles for commercial and research applications.
The aerospace industry was an early adopter of the internet and broadband technology to allow the use of multiple design centers and a global supply chain as well as 24-hour operations. Our adoption of clean technology includes the installation of solar roofs at Boeing Charleston, research on the use of waste carbon fiber in pavement to dispose of the waste and clean the groundwater (carbon is a filter material), and aviation biofuels developed from algae.
Aerospace has been our past, is our present and will be our future in Snohomish County. While the industry continues to innovate for its’ own purposes, EASC will look for technology “spin-outs” from aerospace to support the growth of our regional economy through diversification; materials, processes and skills applied to maritime are one example.
For further information contact Economic Alliance Snohomish County; John Monroe, Chief Operations Officer (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Matt Smith, Director, Industry and Resource Development (email@example.com).