Keeping the Aerospace Industry Above the Clouds
AIM Aerospace is changing the way airplanes are being built. With its R&D in thermoplastics and investments in the latest automation technology, the skies are looking very blue.
The next time you are in a plane, take a deep breath. Okay, sure, it may not be mountain fresh air, but you are still breathing while you are 35,000 feet up in the sky. And while you are doing that, you can also thank AIM Aerospace, because the company has probably made it possible for air to flow through your cabin as well as the rest of the plane to keep everything running as it should.
“We produce a tremendous portfolio of parts for ducting in airplanes. In fact, we produce over 100,000 ducts per year. We have been a leader in the production of Environmental Control System ducts for over thirty years,” says Jon Evans, Senior VP of Business Development for AIM Aerospace. Evans himself has over thirty years of experience in composites manufacturing, including twenty years in business development.
At the start of 2019, AIM Aerospace CEO Daniele Cagnatel, who was Evans’ boss at a previous company, invited him to join the AIM team on their journey to transform the company by expanding its product line and evolving into a company of the future. According to Mr. Evans, it was exciting to get back into composites manufacturing for aerospace.
Headquartered in Renton, Washington, AIM stands for Aircraft Interior Manufacturing and originally obtained its name by producing interiors for the first class section of planes that do the long-haul flights. Think about those nice pods for sleeping in when flying overseas. “We don’t produce the seat you sit in but we make the shell and all the surroundings. It has evolved over time as we have progressed into different products and industries to support different customers,” Evans says.
That evolution into different products led AIM into the extensive production of duct parts for major airplane producers including Boeing, Evans says. “We are an industry leader in environmental control system ducting. So our products are less visible in aircraft engines, but without them, the airplanes don’t fly.”
Working with various composite parts and processes is AIM’s principal business. Composites are the result of combining two or more materials together to form a new material that has the qualities – usually strength or stiffness – needed for a particular product.
Picture glue and string. The glue in this case is a resin that binds everything together and the string is the carbon fiber or fiberglass fiber that gives the manufactured parts their structural integrity. The resin and fiber are combined in a controlled manner with very specific fiber and resin content in either unidirectional or fabric materials. The production parts are laid out in layers like plywood, with multiple layers laid up and cured to form the structural part. The individual layers are not that strong on their own, but when they are cured either in an oven or an autoclave, it becomes a highly durable structural product.
AIM is also known as a leader in chopped fiber thermoplastic manufacturing for aerospace applications. Thermoplastics are once again a combination of resin and fiber materials that are heated to high temperatures to get the materials to flow and molded into parts which become structural after they are cooled. The reason why thermoplastics are a big deal is the advantages the material has over other manufacturing techniques. Traditionally, a lot of parts made for airplanes were built from metal. You basically took a block of aluminum or steel and use precision machining centers to remove 90 percent of the material away until you have produced the part you need. The rest is left behind on the floor as scrap.
“Thermoplastics, on the other hand, are a very green material, because rather than throwing 90 plus percent away, your scrap is less than two percent. You can mold parts into these complex shapes and meet the structural performance requirements,” Evans says.
Not only is it greener for the environment, it also saves that other green – money – for companies. By eliminating the waste of materials, thermoplastics transforms the cost structure of making parts so it becomes a significant competitive advantage. “Our goal is to make thermoplastics much more prevalent, not just in aircraft but in the engines, because we feel we can meet performance requirements while saving waste and costs. This puts us in a position where we can win more work and have a thriving long-term enterprise to support our customers.”
Thermoplastics are also well suited to the new technology that is streamlining and automating the manufacturing industry. “You get high quality and efficiency. So we can also use people where they can bring the best value using their skills. For example, we are producing 6,000 brackets a month for Boeing that go on the 787 aircraft. We have invested more into our equipment so that we can keep up with the volume as our customers’ demand increases.”
This investment includes making an important step forward in what is known as Industry 4.0.
Industry 4.0 is where smart machines and digital technology come together in just about every aspect of the manufacturing process to deliver increased efficiencies and production power than was possible before. AIM is now using data that is collected from the machines in its facilities to quickly make adjustments to the manufacturing process of its parts. The machines communicate exactly what needs attention and how to optimize output – all at a speed that would be impossible for humans to do.
AIM is also consolidating its locations and number of facilities from five (5) to three (3) with a focus on the latest manufacturing innovations coming out of Industry 4.0. “We make ducting in our Auburn and Sumner facilities and have invested over $12 million in renovating our Sumner facility to streamline the flow and put automation in place so we can put more work into a smaller space. It makes sense to bring all that together to achieve economy of scale.”
AIM is making this investment in technology to deliver more complex assemblies for their customers. This not only reduces the costs for companies that use AIM as a parts supplier, it also puts AIM in a place to offer more product options and grow into new areas of manufacturing.
Local and state governments are recognizing the value that AIM’s investment brings to local communities. The Washington State Department of Commerce recently announced a $125,000 grant to assist with the company’s expansion efforts.
“I’m a huge proponent of showing your commitment to the community. And we want to demonstrate that we are building careers for people, not just jobs,” Evans says. “We are very grateful to be awarded the grant. It shows a mutual commitment by the local government and us to say that we are here for the long-haul.”
AIM is moving its R&D facility from Poway, California to Renton, Washington which will bring the company’s product designers and development engineers into the production environment.
The company has 1,200+ employees who provide the creativity and passion behind the products. “Just a couple of days ago I was visiting a customer and I took some of our operations people and technical people with me. They were so excited about that because they got a chance to get out of the shop and go to the customer and their creativity just got going. That is the stuff that excites me,” Evans says, especially when clients make surprise requests.
Evans tells a story of a recent call from a customer saying he broke a part and needed a replacement within a few days to complete a project on time. The challenge? Normally, producing that particular part would take a lead time of 10 weeks. “So it was all hands on deck,” Evans says. “I was in the factory and went to the operations supervisor and asked ‘what can we do?’ I will always remember this, she looked at me and said, ‘we live for this.’”
The operations team was able to find a part that was already in process and, after making a number of adjustments to it, was able to meet the customer’s requirements. “We put the new part on a red-eye flight out to the customer. They got it, they installed it and they were ecstatic. And that is all about people working together.”