Born from an engineering doctorate project, Electroimpact has emerged as a leading light in the aircraft industry, supplying machine tooling products and integrated systems for global aerospace heavyweights. The Washington-headquartered organization’s success is due, in large part, to a unique business model, Dan Harvey reports.
The nature of Electroimpact’s rapid and substantial success is remarkable: Essentially, in the span of about 21 years, the Mukilteo, Wash.-based company evolved from a graduate school project to the global aircraft industry’s leading supplier of automated equipment. Its client list is a roster of aerospace all-stars: Airbus, Boeing, Kawasaki Heavy Industries, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Fuji Heavy Industries, Spirit Aerospace, Vought, Northrup-Grumman, Israeli Aircraft Industries, and Xi’an Aircraft of China, among others.
For these customers, Electroimpact now provides factory automation and tooling solutions. Specifically, its forte is integrating automation and tooling into a single synergistic production solution. With its extensive experience in aircraft tooling design and manufacturing, Electroimpact accomplishes the largest tooling jobs the global aerospace industry has ever seen. At the same time, the company is equally adept as providing smaller product solutions.
STRONG ENGINEERING FOCUS
But just as remarkable as the company’s evolution is its unique business model. Electroimpact describes itself as an engineer-driven organization. According to Todd Rudberg, one of Electroimpact’s senior lead engineers, 250 of the company’s 350 active employees are advanced-degree engineers focused on designing and manufacturing state-of-the-art aircraft equipment. The company provides these employees a free reign. But with such independence comes a great deal of responsibility. “Our engineers are in charge of the entire range of project management,” says Rudberg.
Engineers become involved in each stage of the entire project process, from initial planning and development, materials procurement, and final assembly, straight through to the tool setting and buyoff. As the company explains, this arrangement maximizes project continuity while minimizing the disconnects that can typically occur at other companies, where engineers, drafters, manufacturers and assemblers all play a hand in the project process. “The engineer who designs a tool or machine is responsible for detailed drawings, manufacture coordination, assembly, and any tooling setting or machine alignment. Once the manufacture is accomplished, the engineers then get involved in the assembly and installation,” explains Rudberg.
Also, by having the engineers do the assembly work, the company makes itself more efficient. “We don’t have to pass drawings and parts down the line. The engineer follows through on every element,” adds Rudberg.
That’s one of the big reasons why Electroimpact became an industry leader, Rudberg says. “That provides us a fairly efficient way to run our company. It also allows for a high degree of customization,” he indicates.
FROM DOCTORATE PROJECT TO COMMERCIALIZATION
No doubt, this strong focus on engineers stems from the founder’s own background. Peter Zieve, Ph.D, established Electroimpact after he earned his doctorate in mechanical engineering from the University of Washington. “Essentially, the company came out of his graduate project, which involved low voltage electromagnentic riveting,” says Rudberg. “The advantage of electromagnetic riveting is that it can form a rivet in one shot – in about one millisecond – whereas other styles, such as pneumatic and squeeze, require much more machinery. The company began by using that technology, and that’s what took us into the aerospace industry.”
Seeking to commercialize the process, Zieve collaborated with several engineering colleagues and set up shop in a garage in Washington and started supplying the nearby Boeing plant with machine tooling.
In its subsequent development, the company gradually evolved from machine tooling production into systems integration. Now its primary products are turnkey assembly systems for aerospace manufacturing. Specific products and services include wing panel and spar machines, CNC drilling machines, custom specialty machines, aircraft assembly fixtures, hand-held EMR guns, satellite construction and deployment equipment, aircraft tooling, engineering and fabrication, and oversize machining.
In addition, it expanded its business overseas, serving as a supplier for companies such as Airbus and Israeli Aircraft Industries. Now, the company is involved in projects in Japan, Australia, England and Germany, as well as the United States. A major milestone was reached in 2001, when the company won contracts to provide all assembly tooling for the wings of the Airbus A380.
HIGH AND LOW BAY OPERATIONS
With its continuing success, Electroimpact moved into larger facilities with increased capabilities. Today, the company has a main campus with five buildings in Mukilteo. It also has facilities and staff in the United Kingdom and Australia.
Its U.S. operations include its High Bay Assembly Facility that provides the company the capability to produce very large machinery. “It’s where we build our biggest machines,” reports Rudberg.
Built in 1997, the 36,000-square-foot plant houses four 25-ton overhead cranes, each 37 feet high. Standing 52-feet-high, the facility has two 60-foot by 300-foot machine assembly areas. Each contains a five-foot-thick slab section for final approval testing. Products that come out of this facility include post riveting machines, flextrack drilling systems, automated fastening, robotic systems, automated fiber placement, hand held electromagnetic rivet guns, precision fixtures, specialty products, and satellite transportation equipment. Electroimpact acquired the necessary credentials and certifications to bring these products to the factory floor. Under the ISO: 9001 program, Electroimpact has developed a broad range of quality control and inspection procedures. As, another plus, it recently received AS9100 approval.
Electroimpact also has a low bay shop facility. “It has about 16,000 total square feet, and it contains our smaller mills and lathes, most of which are CNC,” says Rudberg.
Low Bay includes two 8,000-square-foot assembly bays serviced by 7.5- and 10-ton bridge cranes with 22-foot maximum hook height. These cranes can load and unload assemblies from trucks that enter through the 20-foot-high, 18-foot-wide garage doors. In addition, it has specialized areas for electrical, magnetic coil, fastener feed, and drill assembly. “The facility also contains 10,000 square feet for welding,” Rudberg points out.
“Along with high bay and low bay, we also have a 20,000-squarefoot coastal facility where we assemble smaller machines that weigh only about 50 tons,” adds Rudberg. “In the High Bay, we assemble machines that weigh anywhere from 100 to 200 tons. These machines can be quite large, because we build very large parts. We specialize in the really large and unique machines for aircraft assembly.”
Processes that Electroimpact deploys and integrates include computer-aided design (CAD), computer-aided manufacturing (CAM), and computer-aided engineering capabilities. It recently expanded these to include CATIA Solutions CAD/CAM software, which enables designers to easily exchange engineering models with customers. Its CNC machining capabilities – CNC milling and turning – enable the company to achieve repeatability, accuracy, and efficiency that keeps it competitive in the aerospace tooling industry.
As far as addressing industry trends, Electroimpact has moved toward robotic accuracy improvement – “That has become the holy grail in the aerospace industry,” says Rudberg – and carbon fiber automatic file placement.
“The two major trends we see are increasing demand for less expensive motion platforms, hence our research into robotics, and the move toward automated fiber placement, which is huge. We’re getting a lot of business from that area,” says Rudberg.
In the meantime, the company’s overriding philosophy is engineer autonomy, which enables the company to better respond to customers’ needs. It also makes for a more effective organization. “We hire a lot of engineers and offer them a great deal of freedom, but when they come on board with us, they better be willing to take on a great deal of responsibility. It’s a trial-by-fire situation and, initially, they may have to suffer through some mistakes. But, ultimately, it makes for some better engineers. They become creative designers as well as visionaries for future development.”
As Rudberg indicates, that is what has made a huge difference for the company.