As the vice president and general manager of ITT Exelis Aerostructures, a leading composites manufacturing company in Salt Lake City, Mike Blair is often asked, “Why is Utah the epicenter of the advanced composites industry?”
Blair explains: “The heritage of carbon fiber manufacturing, as well as the roots of automated composites processing started right here in Utah. When you combine that heritage with the state’s support for composites process and manufacturing training, and with the location of major customers like Hill Air Force Base, you have a unique environment that has made Utah a special place for composites companies to grow.”
A Bellwether Industry
Manufacturing in Utah produces approximately 11 percent of the State’s gross domestic product. Within the manufacturing sector, advanced composites manufacturing is a bellwether industry. In the early 1970s, Hexcel Corporation began producing carbon fiber. In 1996, Hexcel purchased the composites products division of Hercules, placing Hexcel at the epicenter of Utah’s fully developed composites industry supply chain.
Thanks to unique competencies in composites and the growth of the supply chain here, other composites companies have steadily located in Utah. The State now boasts more than 120 composites-related companies, which account for at least 10,000 jobs. More than 6,000 new jobs are expected to be added to the industry in Utah as global demand increases for advanced composites products in the coming years.
Lightweight, stronger-than-steel composite materials have become integral to the aerospace and defense sectors, but they are also essential to a fast-growing list of companies that produce carbon fiber products for everything from high-impact body armor to outdoor equipment, recreational products and high-end sports cars.
A Growth Trajectory
Hexcel alone is currently investing $1.1 billion in the expansion of its Salt Lake City operations. The 15-year expansion effort will solidify the company as the largest manufacturer of high-performance carbon fiber in the United States. Hexcel currently manufactures products for aerospace primary and secondary structures, helicopters, defense aircraft, satellites and sporting equipment. Every new Boeing 787 Dreamliner that lifts off the tarmac includes approximately $1.5 million worth of Hexcel’s advanced composite parts.
In fact, Boeing Commercial Airplanes recently selected an 850,000-square-foot site in West Jordan, Utah, to establish a new advanced composites fabricating operation for the horizontal stabilizer components of its 787-9 passenger jet. Boeing’s existing operation in Utah is a 267,000-square-foot facility that produces complex machined parts. The close proximity of the two facilities will help the company improve efficiency while also allowing it to achieve a competitive advantage in its supply chain by expanding its internal composite capabilities.
Meanwhile, in Clearfield, Alliant Techsystems (ATK) operates a 615,000-square-foot, $100 million Aircraft Commercial Center of Excellence facility, where workers manufacture composite-fiber airframe components for the Airbus A350 commercial jet and advanced composite parts for General Electric and Rolls Royce engines. Next door, ATK’s computer-driven robotic machines weave composite fibers into wing skins and other critical parts for military aircraft. In total, ATK occupies nearly 1.5 million square feet of space for the manufacturing of its military and commercial aircraft composite structures.
When talking about ATK and its Utah operations, one must also mention the aerospace giant’s hand in developing the James Webb Space Telescope, for which the company was recognized by NASA and Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. The telescope will launch into space in 2018, and engineers from ATK’s Magna operations used advanced composites materials to construct the 2,000-pound platform that holds the telescope’s mirrors.
Located in Ogden, Utah’s ENVE Composites is one of the world’s leading manufacturers of high-end carbon bicycle rims and related products. ENVE is the only manufacturer of carbon bicycle rims to win a world downhill championship. Also in Ogden, the carbon/graphite water skis of Goode Ski Technologies have won more national medals than all other brands combined. At half the weight, carbon/graphite offers twice the physical properties of any fiberglass water ski.
Further north in Brigham City, sister companies Vexxel Composites LLC and Hypercomp Engineering Inc. have partnered with 3M Company to produce a broad portfolio of advanced composite gas tanks for use in compressed natural gas vehicles. Hypercomp designs, develops and certifies the technology and Vexxel manufactures the tanks. The tanks are lighter, stronger and less expensive than current tanks that are on the market and will revolutionize the natural gas vehicle industry.
“Hypercomp and Vexxel are excited about the possibilities for growth and expansion in Utah; the future for these tanks is bright,” says Wayne C. Clark, president of Vexxel. “We expect utilization of these tanks to cut across multiple applications for military, industrial and commercial pressure vessels and we anticipate expanding into the worldwide market. We believe compressed natural gas to be the wave of the future and we are excited to be riding the crest of that wave.”
ITT Exelis is also expanding its composite manufacturing operations in Utah. This agile company made advance preparations for an expected boom in demand for composite products. It has invested heavily in research and development, manufacturing space and initial capability. The company recently opened a new 250,000-square-foot manufacturing facility to complement its existing 140,000 square feet of space and added 100 more employees to its base of 300 workers in Utah.
“Most businesses typically try to capture new business before they invest in capability and capacity. ITT Exelis has done just the opposite,” Blair explains.“The company said, ‘We need to have this initial capability and demonstrate to the marketplace that we are willing to invest and be a partner in that initial capability.’ So we have made that investment. Now, rather than having to win a program, do product development, construct a new facility and then train people to do the work, we have actually invested ahead of that need. That investment is proving to be a powerful discriminator in the marketplace for us. Companies can have confidence that our capacity and capability are already in place.”
ITT Exelis has had operations in Utah for 40 years, but the company looked at a number of different sites before settling on Salt Lake City for its expansion. Blair says having a footprint here was certainly a plus, but knowing the core capability of composites is in Utah, along with the educational infrastructure, proved too much to pass over. Exelis was also influenced by the fact that Utah has a strong supply chain. The company has had long relationships with Hexcel and other Utah advanced composites companies.
“Having Hexcel here is certainly an asset. Some materials we initially had to import from Europe, but the fact that Hexcel is right here in Utah and is expanding allows us to buy those materials here. That is a huge advantage for us as well,” says Blair.
Core products manufactured by Exelis in Utah include all of the vacuum-release tanks for the Boeing 787 Dreamliner jets (the company has built more than 15,000 of the tanks to date and expects to deliver more than 700 tanks this year); missile bodies for Lockheed Martin’s Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM); and composites parts for the escape systems on Airbus’ flagship A380 jumbo jet.
“Since they are on the A380’s escape system, you hope you will never have to see our parts, but there are about 44 of them on every A380 Airbus,” Blair quips.
The company also manufactures composite blade seals for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. In fact, everywhere there is a moving part on Lockheed Martin’s Joint Strike Fighter, there is an Exelis blade seal. ITT Exelis also makes the outboard wing skins for the aircraft carrier-based version of the F-35.
Other aerospace products Exelis manufactures in Utah include the tail rotor pylons and sponsons for the Sikorsky CH-53K “heavy-lift” helicopter. Blair says ITT Exelis won design authority for those products as well, so the company provides design, fabrication and assembly.
“We fabricate all of the components except for the metal parts that we buy, and then we assemble all of the components here in Salt Lake City and ship them to our customer, Sikorsky,” he explains. He notes that ITT Exelis also manufacturers composite tail rotor blades for Sikorsky’s S-76 commercial helicopter.
The Bear Claw
ITT Exelis is also using its aerospace experience to impact the oil and gas industry. As Blair explains, ITT Exelis has produced and trademarked what it calls the Bear Claw, a plug that oil and gas companies use when “fracking” to extract oil and gas trapped in rock layers far beneath the surface.
“Our plugs seal the wells when the oil and gas companies pressurize them to crack the rock. The Bear Claw replaces the old cast iron plugs of the past. They place our plug in the well to seal it off and hold the pressure, at temperature, while the fracking occurs,” he says. “After they crack the rock in the oil or gas producing zone, they have to drill out the plugs to allow the gas or oil to flow. With cast iron plugs, it took up to a day to drill each one out. Our composite Bear Claw plugs can be drilled out in as little as 20 minutes, which allows the energy company to do an entire field in the same amount of time it took to do just one well in the past.”
The composite plugs are a relatively new product, but they are every bit as strong as the old cast iron plugs. “We think of it as an aerospace product because it has the same kinds of requirements — it just happens to go a mile down in the ground,” Blair says.
Public Sector Partners
Back in Ogden, ENVE Composites is a prime example of how a composites company can flourish by leveraging Utah’s educational resources and unique ecosystem for nurturing businesses. As a young carbon fiber tube and component manufacturer, ENVE faced hurdles to growth: finding effective product testing and creating sustainable growth.
Through a $30,000 technology development grant from the Utah Science Technology and Research initiative (USTAR), ENVE was able to partner with engineers from Weber State University to create a reliable testing framework and a machine to test its product designs and improve quality.
Solving its quality issues opened the door to growth, which created a new hurdle for ENVE. Accelerated growth and increased production led to the need for a larger workforce and the question of whether the company’s expansion should occur in Utah or overseas.
With the assistance of the Economic Development Corporation of Utah, ENVE partnered with the Governor’s Office of Economic Development and Ogden City to obtain a combined state and local post-performance incentive, enabling the company to match its workforce expansion with its growth. ENVE can now potentially add as many as 324 additional employees over seven years. Best of all, the incentive helped the company keep those jobs in Utah.
Such collaboration has helped companies like ENVE flourish, and allowed Utah to succeed globally as a premier business destination.