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Originally published June 28, 2014 at 8:01 PM | Page modified June 30, 2014 at 8:19 PM

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State bets on composites as future of manufacturing

In Moses Lake, BMW produces carbon-fiber thread. In Frederickson, Toray processes carbon-fiber thread into resin-infused tape. In Everett, Boeing will fabricate from such tape a giant composite wing. Upon these pillars, state officials hope to build a broader composites industry.


Seattle Times aerospace reporter

Washington state’s growing composites industry

Washington companies participate in many different phases of the composites process, from the carbon-fiber thread to the finished parts and all the stages in between.

Click to see an enlarged version of the graphic.

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Boeing’s decision to build the giant wing of its 777X jet in Everett has spurred ambitious talk of building a substantial carbon-fiber composites industry in the state.

In Moses Lake last month, Gov. Jay Inslee celebrated the expansion of a carbon-fiber plant that by next year will be the largest in the world, feeding raw material to carmaker BMW.

Composites manufacturing finally looks set to spread beyond aerospace into mass-production sectors such as autos.

Inslee hailed “the beginning of a structural revolution in a growing market” and declared the goal of creating here “a carbon-fiber industrial cluster.”

In addition to bobbins of carbon-fiber thread, Washington already produces rolls of carbon-fiber tape; automated fiber-placement robots; molds for shaping boat and airplane hulls; machines for hardening the material; and finished carbon-composite structures.

“We cover the complete composites industry,” said Geoff Wood, an industry consultant to the state. “We are one of the only regions in the country that can say this.”

The competition is stiff.

While Eastern Washington’s cheap hydroelectricity encourages production of the basic raw material, carbon fiber is light enough to be easily transported to a cheaper labor market for the making of parts.

Though there are probably a few thousand people doing composites work in the state already, it’s unclear how many jobs this expanding but highly automated field can deliver.

Still, hopes are high that composites-manufacturing operations, including Boeing suppliers but also non-aerospace firms, will set up shop here.

“We’re talking to national and international companies about multiple manufacturing facilities in our state,” said Brian Bonlender, director of the state Department of Commerce.

Some advice

The famous prediction in the 1967 movie “The Graduate” — that the next big thing would be “Just one word. ... Plastics” — could today be re-enacted by some manufacturing executive whispering in a grad’s ear the advice to get into carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic composites.

Or, in just one word, “composites.”

This advanced material is made by soaking layered strings of carbon fiber in gluey epoxy resin that hardens when heated.

Lighter and stronger than metal, composites are well established in a variety of applications including golf clubs, wind-turbine blades and prosthetic limbs.

Once the reserve of high-end military projects because of the prohibitive cost of fabrication, carbon composites displaced aluminum as the material of choice for future jet airframes with the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

Now, new technologies are further reducing the cost, allowing increased use of composites in mass production, including auto manufacturing.

The composites industry has taken root in multiple locations in Washington.

In Moses Lake, German firms SGL and BMW make carbon-fiber thread, which BMW later spins into the material forming the passenger cabin of its electric cars.

In Frederickson, Pierce County, Japanese firm Toray processes carbon-fiber thread into resin-infused tape, which Boeing shapes and bakes to make the tail fins of its jets.

Innovative engineering companies in Mukilteo, Sedro-Woolley and Tacoma design and build leading-edge tools and equipment used in the burgeoning carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic-composites business.

Bonlender said two companies are considering Washington as a location to make polyacrylonitrile — the synthetic polymer fiber known as PAN that’s the precursor material used to make the carbon-fiber thread.

John Janicki is president of Sedro-Woolley-based Janicki Industries, which supplies sophisticated tooling and molds used to build the 787’s compositefuselage and composite structures for the marine and wind-power industries. He says other states, including Alabama, South Carolina and Utah, have similar ambitions to create an industrial hub around composites.

“Everyone is trying to do the same thing,” Janicki said. “But I think there’s enough to go around. We definitely have a lot of industry leaders in the area. There’s a lot of opportunity to cluster and work together.”

New methods

Wood, the state’s composites consultant, said Boeing’s Dreamliner and now the 777X wing bring “a very substantial increase in the industry capability that is on our doorstep.”

To leverage that into a composite cluster, Wood said Washington firms should develop leading-edge automation technologies that can be used in higher-volume sectors such as automakng.

He’s helping prepare the state’s application for a $70 million U.S. Department of Energy grant to set up here a Manufacturing Innovation Institute for Composites.

The institute would research low-cost, energy-efficient production of composite materials and parts — not for aircraft, but for vehicles, wind turbines and high-pressure gas-storage tanks.

Globe Machine, a family-run business founded in 1917 that employs about 170 people in Tacoma, is pioneering such technology. It designed and manufactured machines now being used in Walker, Mich., to produce the carbon-fiber hood and roof of Chevrolet’s 2014 Corvette Stingray.

Its machines bypass the traditional way of hardening composites, which is to bake them in a high-pressure oven called an autoclave.

Autoclaves are costly, and the curing process takes hours. That fine for airplane production but is unsuitable for high-volume manufacturing such as car parts.

Globe is known for its heavy industrial equipment used in making composite wood products and in handling wood pulp and paper.

Working with Israeli-owned auto-parts-maker Plasan, Globe used its experience with wood composites to develop a new process that applies heat and pressure inside a custom-built machine sized to the specific parts being made.

It “produces parts faster and more efficiently, with less energy usage,” said Ron Jacobsen, vice president at Globe.

He said the machines can be scaled up to make very large parts.

And though the aerospace industry has much more stringent material and manufacturing standards than the auto industry, Jacobsen said Globe has begun working with aerospace companies with a view to making airplane parts later.

Eastern Washington

At Moses Lake, the SGL/BMW joint venture is a much bigger automotive project.

The plant is a showcase for carbon-fiber production that will by next year produce 9,000 tons of fiber per year, more than any other plant in the world.

At the start of the process, automated rollers pull silvery white ribbons of PAN — each made from 50,000 filaments laced together — out of large boxes shipped from Japan by Mitsubishi.

These ribbons pass through four ovens, gradually changing color through oxidation to yellow, burnished copper, brown and finally black.

This black fiber, which will no longer burn, is then carbonized by passing it through two furnaces at up to 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit.

At the end of the line, carbon fiber winds onto large bobbins that are sent by truck to Seattle, then by sea to Germany, where BMW uses it to make the passenger cabs for its I-series electric cars.

Why did SGL choose Washington state?

Jürgen Köhler, chief executive of SGL, said primarily because BMW demanded a plant powered by low-cost, renewable, “green” energy.

In addition to cheap hydropower, Eastern Washington offered a good transportation infrastructure for shipping the fiber to Germany; a ready labor force; and the legal and patent security of a Western economy.

Köhler said “only a few locations” in the world — Eastern Canada was one other on his short list — offer all these benefits.

Echoing Inslee, he said a carbon-fiber revolution is pushing composites into new manufacturing applications besides aerospace.

He cites the growing demand for composite high-pressure storage tanks triggered by the shale-gas boom.

However, Köhler warned that the lure of cheap, renewable electricity won’t guarantee that other phases of the composites industry will also settle in Eastern Washington.

Shipping the fiber to make parts somewhere else is easy because the material is lightweight and so “transportation costs are not a big deal,” he said.

BMW board member Klaus Draeger said the automaker wanted to make its car parts “close to the engineering facilities” in Germany.

SGL separately produces carbon-fiber auto parts in Austria and Germany and aerospace parts, including Boeing 787 floor beams, at a plant in California.

“We are (in Moses Lake) because of the energy situation, the key success factor in carbon-fiber production,” Köhler said. “Producing parts is a different animal.”

To make smaller carbon-fiber parts requires skilled workers, often doing hand layup. “You need a big labor force at an affordable rate,” Köhler said.

The Moses Lake phase of the process requires many fewer workers.

When the plant reaches full capacity next year, with six production lines in three buildings running day and night, the highly automated machines will be operated by crews of just 11 workers per building.

Mary Kaye Bredeson, who coordinates composites-training courses in 10 Washington state technical and community colleges, said developing a local workforce to meet the potential growth of composites production — for the 777X and beyond — is a state priority.

This month, the state announced $8 million in funding for Washington community and technical colleges to create positions for more than 1,000 more students in high-demand aerospace programs, including composite-materials manufacturing.

“We know there will be a high demand,” said Bredeson.

Köhler didn’t rule out the possibility Moses Lake might one day add some other piece of the composites-manufacturing puzzle.

“At this stage, this is a carbon-fiber plant,” he said. “Could it be something more in 10 years? Maybe.”

Aerospace composites

Whatever the possibilities in other sectors, aerospace remains the cornerstone of manufacturing here.

Boeing will deploy the latest technology to build the 777X composite wing at a new facility in Everett.

Because a plane tail has essentially the same structure as a wing, though smaller, Boeing’s Composites Manufacturing Center (CMC) in Frederickson, near Tacoma — where it builds 777 and 787 tails — gives a glimpse of what’s ahead.

On a visit to the facility last month, robotic machines zipped back and forth, laying down the resin-infused carbon-fiber tape made by Toray across the street and forming it into the skins, spars, ribs and skin-stiffening rods that make up the airplane tails.

These machines were made by the Cincinnati unit of Fives Machining Systems. For the 777X, Mukilteo-based Electroimpact aims to displace Cincinnati with automated fiber-placement machines it has developed, promising new levels of speed and accuracy.

“That’s our next really big opportunity,” said Electroimpact Vice President John Hartmann. He said winning that work would fill a lull in contracts around 2017.

“That’s why 777X is so critical to us,” said Hartmann. “That will bridge us well into the end of the decade.”

After the structural parts of the airplane tails are formed, they go into one of Frederickson’s three large autoclaves for hardening.

The various pieces come out wrapped like Christmas presents, covered by the bagging used to create a vacuum around the part inside the autoclave.

Technicians have to scrape off the bagging and excess resin. But the next phase of the process is largely automated.

Large parts move around the facility on automatic guided vehicles — low-slung wheeled platforms that move autonomously, guided by underfloor wiring and emitting a birdlike chirp to warn people of their approach.

Three large, computer-controlled water jets built by Flow International of Kent trim the edges of the composite parts.

Another automated machine pre-drills holes to a tight tolerance, the part held in place by suction cups that conform to the structure’s shape.

In the final stages, assembling the tail from all the fabricated composite pieces, workers are needed again.

In a lean-manufacturing setup, mechanics assemble the tail while it’s laid out horizontally, like a table, and held in place with movable, flexible tooling.

The Boeing CMC has about 750 workers. Their end product is a complete, functional tail that’s sent to Everett for final assembly of the jet.

Automation and jobs

All the automation means advanced-composites work at Boeing likely won’t create the tens of thousands of blue-collar jobs that came out of traditional aluminum-based plane manufacturing.

“Being brutally honest,” says state worker-training coordinator Bredeson,the promise of jobs in composites hasn’t yet fully materialized.

She said many graduates of local composites-training programs have ended up in unrelated jobs.

Wood, the state’s composite-industry consultant, looked on the bright side of automation. He said it lessens the importance of labor costs and so may help Washington win business against competition from low-wage states.

Inslee said that if the state can develop “a critical infrastructure of personal and industrial talent,” that will encourage the growth of a large cluster of composites companies and so provide a significant number of jobs.

“You need to look forward,” said Inslee. “This industry will grow. This is just the beginning.”

Dominic Gates: (206) 464-2963 or dgates@seattletimes.com



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