It’s a lot more complicated than selling picks and shovels to gold miners, but the idea’s the same.
As airplane manufacturers Boeing and Airbus, as well as their emerging challengers, charge into a new world where wings and jet bodies are built from carbon-fiber composites rather than metal, only a few suppliers can provide the key tools they all need.
Elite engineering firm Electroimpact of Mukilteo is perfecting sophisticated robotic technology to secure its premier place among those toolmakers.
Inside a building just west of Everett’s Paine Field, one of the industry’s most advanced machines for laying down carbon composites zipped back and forth recently across a spinning drum, laying down half-inch-wide ribbons of black fiber as it demonstrated how it can build up a contoured section of airplane fuselage at a dizzying speed.
The machine will soon be shipped to South Korea, where it will fabricate the cone-shaped final fuselage segment for Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner.
But Todd Rudberg, Electroimpact’s project manager, hopes Boeing, too, will buy this Automated Fiber Placement (AFP) machine to build the giant carbon-fiber composite wing of its soon-to-be-launched 777X airliner.
“777X is the Holy Grail right now,” Rudberg said. “We’re competing mightily for that.”
Electroimpact started out designing and building automated drilling and fastening machines, and made its name integrating those into complete factory systems that assemble metal wings for Airbus in Wales and composite wings for Bombardier in Northern Ireland.
With about 610 employees worldwide, 480 or so at its Mukilteo headquarters, Electroimpact also has ongoing projects with Embraer in Brazil and Comac in China.
To retain its lead role as a toolmaker to the aerospace giants in the new era of carbon-fiber composite jets, Electroimpact is busily diversifying beyond machines that assemble parts to machines that build composite parts.
AFP technology is no more than about 10 percent of Electroimpact’s business right now, but it’s cutting edge and set to grow.
What makes Rudberg’s machine special is that its circular robotic head, carrying multiple creels of carbon-fiber ribbon, can move around any complex shape with pinpoint accuracy and at unheard-of speeds.
First, a laser projector measures the contours of the surface upon which the fiber is to be laid and a computer works out the complex three-dimensional moves needed to tailor the layers according to the engineering specs.
Then, in a mesmerizing industrial dance, the head moves back and forth, laying down shorter and longer strips of fiber, each heated to a fiery glow at the point of application, while the surface to be covered rotates as needed.
As it zipped around during the demo, the machine’s readout showed a top speed of 595 pounds of carbon fiber laid down per hour.
That is “a very large number, probably the fastest we’ve seen,” said Jeff Sloan, editor-in-chief of the trade magazine High Performance Composites. In current real-world applications, an average lay-down speed of 90 pounds per hour would be fast, he said.
Bill Hasenjaeger, product marketing manager with CGTech, of Irvine, Calif., which makes the software for AFP technology, said reliable precision — which he’s seen in previous Electroimpact AFP machines — is more important than top speed.
“If it’s really that fast and retains the accuracy, reliability and repeatability I’ve experienced with Electroimpact, that’s a pretty darned impressive number,” he said.
Ben Hempstead, chief of staff at Electroimpact, insists the company’s AFP technology can’t be matched by competitors.
“You won’t see this anywhere else on the planet,” Hempstead said.
Competitors include long-established U.S. companies such as Cincinnati Machine of Hebron, Ky., or Ingersoll of Rockford, Ill., and expanding multinationals such as M. Torres of Spain, which in 2012 bought Bothell-based Pacifica Engineering and plans to open an Everett manufacturing plant this year.
In Wichita, Kan., Ingersoll was the original supplier to Spirit Aerosystems of AFP machines that build the big cockpit-and-forward-fuselage section of the 787. But in 2006, Electroimpact won the contract to supply additional AFP machines to meet the increased 787 production rate.
Airbus is using them in Kinston, N.C., to fabricate A350 fuselage panels.
Rudberg, 46, is a University of Washington physics graduate and now a 20-year Electroimpact veteran. He said he’s keen to have his AFP machines employed to make wing skins and the two wing spars — long beams each more than 100 feet long, that run the length of the wing at the front and at the rear.
The Electroimpact machine could fabricate each of those spars each as a single piece without any joins, an “uninterrupted beautiful structure,” he said.
The smallest version of the custom-built AFP machine, the one used in the recent demo, costs $5 million. Electroimpact has built bigger models for making larger structures that run up to $25 million.
For the 777X, Boeing might need four to six machines to make the wing skins and an equal number for the spars, Rudberg estimated.
Hempstead said Boeing will need a separate plant to build the composite 777X wings, which he says will be so big they’ll need to be made near the jet’s final assembly line.
If, as some insiders expect, Boeing decides to do all the 777X work in Everett, that may give next-door neighbor Electroimpact an added advantage over its competitors.
“We want to fill that factory with AFP equipment,” said Hempstead. “If it was in Everett, it would be great.”