From a historical perspective, composites are the grouping of two materials that when combined produce a material that is generally stronger and more light-weight than either material by itself. Prehistoric hunters created composite structures when they wound animal hide around their bows to increase the strength of their weapons. Thousands of years later this technology, moving from various fiber sources to carbon fiber, has been adopted and refined by a plethora of industries to make their respective products lighter and stronger.
Business Environment Fosters Success
Some high-profile composite firms have expanded in Utah because of the state’s low electricity costs, business-friendly tax/regulatory environment and qualified workforce. Names such as Hexcel, ATK, Boeing, Janicki, and Exelis along with many others have major operations in the state.
Seeing the important role the composite industry plays, Utah’s universities and Applied Technology Colleges have created programs tailored specifically to the composite industry. The highly productive and well-trained labor force in Utah is conducive to helping composite companies achieve the highest level of results. Boasting the lowest median age in the United States, a well-educated workforce and a cost of living that is five to ten percent lower than the national average, Utah is a prime location for expanding and relocating high technology driven businesses.
Hexcel is an international company that has advanced composite facilities strategically located around the world, including Utah. Hexcel is one of the country’s largest producers of carbon fiber and carbon fiber prepregs. Hexcel manufactures pre-impregnated materials for use in the aerospace industry and sells its materials to companies like those mentioned, as well as other aircraft manufacturers and substantial users of carbon fiber such as the outdoor products industry.
“Hexcel has been happy doing business in Utah,” said Gene Barton, central site manager for Hexcel. “The support of the State as well as Salt Lake County and West Valley City has helped us to grow the business here. Partnering with industry and educational facilities has helped to provide the human resources we need to grow.”
The Salt Lake City facility is comprised of multiple production buildings, raw material/receiving warehouses and material testing laboratories. Key applications for products made at Hexcel’s Utah plant are commercial aerospace structures, helicopters, defense aircraft, satellites and sporting equipment.
Hexcel products are the first step in a local supply chain that ultimately produces structures ranging from large and small commercial airplanes, to key space and defense programs like the V-22 tiltrotor aircraft and the F-35 fighter plane.
A large focus has been placed on the composite industry in the state because of the outlying benefits it provides to some of Utah’s other industries such as aerospace, wind energy and outdoor products. These three complementary industries, with their strong ties to the advanced composites market, allow for a strong local customer base for companies in the composite market.
“A strong and growing composites and advanced materials capability in Utah is central to our economic growth in the aerospace and advanced manufacturing industry of the future,” said Marshall Wright, aerospace and defense cluster director for the Governor’s Office of Economic Development.
Strengthening Utah’s Economy with Composites
Utah has one of the highest concentrations of carbon fiber composite businesses in the nation. ATK (Alliant Techsystems), formerly Thiokol Corporation, helped bring Utah to the forefront of the composite industry when it began using composites in the manufacturing of components for rocket motor cases. Now, more than 100 Utah companies specialize in composites and more than 10,000 Utahns work in advanced composites-related firms.
One of these composite companies is Utah-based Exelis Aerostructures. Exelis has more than 40 years of experience in the design and manufacture of composite structures and assemblies in Utah. Along with producing parts for military applications, such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and the Marine Corps’ heavy lift helicopter, the CH-53K, Exelis provides engine components to General Electric for a wide variety of commercial aircraft engines. Commercial and military aircraft manufacturers are increasingly using composite structures to make aircraft lighter, more fuel efficient and more durable.
Exelis is also a supplier to Boeing, the world’s leading aerospace company and the largest manufacturer of commercial jetliners and military aircraft. Exelis has long provided Boeing with composite storage tanks, but was more recently selected by Boeing to produce composite airframe substructures for the 787 Dreamliner.
Composite materials make up 50 percent of the primary structure of the 787 Dreamliner, which provides a significant weight savings from traditional metallic structures. The results are unmatched fuel efficiency and exceptional environmental performance.
“The robust, integrated composites value stream in Utah provides a competitive advantage during this transformation from metallic to composite structures,” said Mike Blair, vice president and general manager of Exelis Aerostructures. “From material suppliers to tooling fabricators to a highly educated and skilled workforce, Utah has become the epicenter of the composites industry.”
An environment has been created in the state where suppliers, manufacturers, distributors and retailers collaborate to develop advanced composite materials and efficiently produce items for business. Not only are the resources and the complete supply chain in Utah, but a desire from companies to partner and support each other is here. An example of this support is the Utah Cluster Acceleration Partnership (UCAP). UCAP is designed to capitalize on the contributions of higher education in accelerating the growth and capacity of the aerospace and composites talent pool. This kind of collaboration has resulted in Utah becoming a mecca for creating, distributing and using products made from composites.