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David Soyka reports on how this company attains new heights of customer satisfaction and product innovation.
A“zodiac” is a celestial coordinate system, depicting positions on the inside surface of an imaginary sphere representing the sky. However, there’s nothing imaginary about the sky for Zodiac Advanced Composites and Engineered Materials (ZACEM). In fact, the sky is the very place where a range of OEM airframe customers put ZACEM’s composite products to work. These include Boeing Commercial and Defense, United Technologies, Airbus, Northrop, Embraer, Comac and various Boeing tier one suppliers in the commercial and military aerospace and aircraft, large commercial transport and regional jet sectors.
But even the sky isn’t a limit for ZACEM’s proven capabilities for innovation, design and flexibility. “ZACEM is valued as a low cost, high volume provider of quality solutions employing composites, plastics, metals and other engineered materials used in the manufacturer of interior airframe structures,” notes Brad Young, vice president of commercial sales. These structures include exterior body panels and aerodynamic fairings, overhead bins, sidewalls, ceilings, fortified cockpit doors, complete interior systems and enclosures, and other primary and secondary aircraft structures.
ZACEM was originally the Advanced Composite Division (ACD) of C&D Aerospace, a leader in the northwest hub of aerospace manufacturers. When C&D was acquired by global aerospace conglomerate the Zodiac Group in 2005, the business unit was rebranded and rededicated to state of the art commercial and military aircraft structures built with the advanced composites and engineered materials that comprise its acronym.
But while names change, reputations don’t.
“ZACEM has a long history, dating back to 1987. During this time we’ve established strong and close working relationships with our customers. They are fully confident in our technical expertise to deliver precisely engineered solutions that perfectly integrate with their onboard structures. Whether it’s a build-to-print or a design and develop project—and our business is about an even split between the two—ZACEM’s manufacturing processes and experienced team provide optimal cost and performance.”
Headquartered in Marysville, Wash., ZACEM employs 1,335 in operating three manufacturing facilities in Washington and other three in California. These combine to nearly a half million square feet of capacity to perform a range of engineered plastics and metal fabrication, injection molding, vacuum forming and assembly operation.
“We are fully capable of manufacturing products from the latest high-temperature engineering resins—such as Peek, Radel, Ultem, polycarbonate and glass filled nylon, as well as soft touch thermoplastic polyurethanes (TPU) and many others,” Young says. “In addition to the engineering materials, we employ a varied spectrum of injection molding materials from basic commodities to custom compounds and colors. For certain features that can’t be molded, we employ various CNC machining centers, CNC routers, and ultrasonic plastic welding equipment to produce finalized details and assemblies.”
ZACEM provides a wide range of raw materials used in today’s aircraft. These include honeycomb cores and panels, woven prepregs, flat panels and panel details, edge casts and various resins and adhesives. That seat row marker that tells you where you’ll be sitting during your flight? It may very well have been made by ZAMEC pad printing equipment to apply a special ink to the plastic surface.
Moreover, as part of a larger global network of aerospace manufacturers, “One of our key strengths is vertical integration,” Young points out. “We’re not only a supplier to our sister companies, but we can also tap into their resources and expertise as needed. Another advantage is that because of our size we have considerable purchasing power. So we not only don’t have much difficulty obtaining raw materials, because we buy these materials in large quantities across the enterprise we’re able to obtain them at lower costs, which we can pass on to our customers.”
“Everybody is concerned about costs, of course,” notes Mike Pound, general manager of engineered materials operations. “But you can’t compromise performance. ZAMEC is able to offer affordability and still maintain the highest levels of performance.”
That same vertical integration also enables ZAMEC to provide its North American aerospace customers with lead times faster than industry standards. “Speed of execution is a clear competitive discriminator for ZACEM,” Pound says. “We strive to continually improve our lean manufacturing processes. Also, we employ the latest versions of CATIA V4 and V5 engineering software, which is customer synchronized to enable concurrent design with customers to accomplish their tasks in an efficient, qualitative way to achieve superior manufacturing validation.
And our flat management structure coupled with a philosophy of employee empowerment to constantly innovate and improve further contribute to our highly efficient operations.”
Year of the Composite
Composites are seeing growing use in airframes because they provide lighter weight (which contributes to better fuel economy as well as improved overall energy efficiency), yet without compromising strength. Indeed, in many cases composites provide superior strength. While metals are equally strong in all directions, composites can be engineered and designed to for strength in a specific direction. For example, a composite can be made so it resists bending in a certain direction. The only way to make metal do that is to make it thicker, thus adding weight. In contrast, composites are strong without adding weight. Consequently, when you’re looking to build with the highest strength to weight ratio, composites are frequently the top choice.
According to Composite Insights, the significantly growing global aerospace demand for composite materials in 2013 was largely attributable to the continued “ramp up of new and existing large commercial aircraft production and increased build rates.” Young heartily agrees. “2014 is going to be a year of continued growth for ZACEM. Interest in composite structures is high and composite aircraft production rates are continuing to build.”
As Industry Today recently reported, advanced composites are increasing in use for aircraft primary structures, “putting pressure on the manufacturing community to produce parts at lower cost and improved yields.” This doesn’t faze the folks at ZACEM.
“We can produce a wide variety of composite materials, to fit exactly what our customers need, at the best price points that exceed what a catalog manufacturer could possibly offer,“ Pound points out. “Our research and development teams are constantly examining how to implement more sophisticated applications using new kinds of resin fibers. Whatever the market is looking for, at whatever price the market demands, ZACEM is at the forefront of satisfying its needs and expectations.”
The expression “push the envelope” stems from the post-WWII era of testing new jet-based aircraft to achieve ever-higher speeds and altitudes. Certainly ZACEM’s combination of flexibility and affordability, innovation and vertical integration not only pushes the envelope of composite manufacturing, it defines it.