Volume 12 | Issue 2 | Year 2009

While the country was focusing on a particular Hughes who became an aviator legend in his time, another Hughes – not as famous but certainly as innovative – was building his company, literally, from the ground up. It was 1947 and along with his brother, Victor Hughes, who owned a vacant lot, James T. Hughes purchased a small drop hammer, attached the power cord to the power line, and formed metal in the middle of the lot.
Eventually, as business flourished, they put a ceiling over their heads and continued to build their company one piece at a time. Today, Hughes Bros. Aircrafters, Inc. (HBA) operates in a 65,000-
square-foot facility in South Gate, in southern California, still using drop-hammer forming to produce shapes for aerospace parts and components, while expanding to supply industries that at one time included consumer appliances and car parts.

But as the company maintains as its primary capability drop hammer forming, a process for producing shapes by the progressive deformation of sheet metal in matched dies under the repetitive blows of a gravity-drop hammer, at the same time it has also embraced the machinery and technologies necessary to compete in the most state-of-the-art venues, supplying components to giants such as Boeing, Airbus, Lockheed Martin, Bombardier and Northrop Grumman, among others.

The attractiveness of drop hammer forming is that it has relatively low tooling costs and dies can be cast from low-melting alloys and are relatively simple to make. The process has been often used for sheet metal parts, such as aircraft components, that undergo frequent design changes or for which there is short run expectancy. The simplicity of the tool-making makes for short delivery times. Drop hammer forming dates at least to the 1860s in the United States – maybe further in other parts of the world – however the lumbering punch it delivered to metal was never an exacting science. “They used to build the patterns on a shrink scale,” says Jim Hughes, son of James T. Hughes. “If it was close, it was fine – that’s all they worried about.”

Of course, supplying modern companies entails achieving tighter tolerances through more sophisticated electronic capabilities. Hughes Aircrafters has not only assembled a raft of capabilities under its umbrella but the certifications to match them – and marries the strength of the tool with the power of state-of-the-art technologies. Using drop hammer, press brake, hydroform or roll methods of forming, the company is equipped to meet every requirement of these forming processes, employing a coordinate measuring machine (CMM) to check within 1000th of an inch. Hughes Bros. can form parts via drop hammer as small as 2×2 inches, up to complex compound-contour parts as large as 60 x 96 bed size. Planishing hammers are also used to aid in the forming process. This operation removes initial imperfections inherent in the forming process. The company works with myriad metals used in aerospace production, including all aerospace alloys, aluminum, stainless steel, and titanium.

In addition, HBA has the ability to manufacture all expendable tooling, such as all OML or IML master models, plaster patterns and blue blocks. It offers soft tooling such as trim/router fixtures, drill shells, chem mill templates and weld fixtures.

What makes the process even more advanced is the fact that all workstations utilize the latest high speed Pentium®-class computers, fully networked, with a wireless Internet accessed trough a T1 line for faster download/upload of fully encrypted files. All computer hardware and software are under constant surveillance and maintained by Synoptek, Inc., Santa Ana, Calif. HBA also maintains an MRP Business System, a state-of-the-art manufacturing control system developed and integrated by Factory Edge, El Segundo, Calif. This system assures real-time controls of its manufacturing process.

HBA’s capabilities include a pattern shop, foundry, die finishing, hydroforming, press brake/roll forming and trim/assembly and hot and cold forming of all aerospace alloys. The company is AS 9100 Rev B/ISO 9001:2000 certified through SGS Systems & Services which is ANAB accredited and listed in IAQG Oasis database. Additionally, it is a part of its customers’ delegated source programs, such as the Spirit Aerosystems Delegated Source, Boeing Space & Defense and Boeing St. Louis PVA, Boeing Transport Aircraft SID and Northrop Grumman’s Key Plan program. Under all of these programs, Hughes Bros. performs final acceptance inspection and ships directly to its customers’ stock.

It is located in the Los Angeles Mid-Alameda Corridor Enterprise Zone and currently NADCAP (National Aerospace and Defense Contractors Accreditation Program) accredited to AC7102 Rev D, AC7102/2 Rev A, and AC7101/5 Rev B for Aluminum Heat Treating and Rockwell Hardness Testing.

Hughes Bros. has Model Based Definition Approval and Digital Product Definition Approval to Boeing’s D6-51991 REV I. It utilizes a CATIA V5R19 CAD system. CATIA stands for “Computer Aided Three Dimensional Interactive Application,” a multi-platform “Computer-aided manufacturing” (CAM) “Computer-aided engineering” (CAE) commercial software suite developed by the French company Dassault Systemes and marketed worldwide by IBM. CATIA supports multiple stages of product development (CAx), from conceptualization, design (CAD), manufacturing (CAM), and analysis (CAE).

HBA is also certified for quality for the following companies: Airbus; Agusta Aerospace s.p.a.; Alenia; Boeing D6-82479 REV E (BQMS, AQMS); Bombardier; Kaman Aerospace; L3 Communications Corp.; Monogram Systems; Northrop Grumman; Parker Hannifin Corp. and Vought Aircraft Industries; Aerospace Filtration; Bell Helicopter; Ducomun Aerostructures; Gulfstream;, Kapco; Klune; Lockheed Martin; Monogram Systems;, Parker Hannifin; Sabreliner Corp.; Sargent Fletcher; Schweizer Aircraft Corp.; Spirit Aerosystems; Venture Aircraft; Viking Air and Webber Aircraft.

Complex inspections are done on its Faro Arm gold series portable coordinate measurement machine: 0-8′; 2 sigma single point with .0020 accuracy. The company also possesses a tool calibration recall software system, GageTrak for precision measuring tools. Also, Hughes Bros. is able to reverse engineer data to aid in the manufacture of tooling.

Currently, HBA exports products to Italy, Asia, New Zealand and Canada, although these represent only 5 percent of the company’s business. Its markets have ranged from military, commercial, executive jets, helicopters and missiles, to parts on the space shuttle. “We’ve done work for anything that flies,” says Hughes, whose wife, Susan, is company president.

So as the aircraft it supplies continue to demand more sophistication in the areas of fabrication and tolerances, Hughes will no doubt continue to operate on the theory that simple technologies can still combine with advanced systems to create the parts necessary to fly throughout the world … and into outer space.

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