Since ATC Manufacturing moved to its facility at 1224 N. Lean, in Post Falls, roughly three years ago, the employee count has nearly doubled, says owner and founder Dan Jorgenson.
David Leach, director of business development, attributes the growth to the increasing adoption of thermoplastic composites in the industry by big aerospace companies such as Chicago-based Boeing Co., Netherlands-based Airbus S.A.S., and Savannah, Georgia-based Gulfstream Aerospace Corp.
ATC, or Advanced Thermoplastic Composites, manufactures continuous fiber reinforced thermoplastic composites for the aerospace industry, says Leach, which includes clips, brackets, channels, ribs, and other beams used in the wings and bodies of aircraft.
“This growth is really reflecting the increased adoption of thermoplastics,” Leach says. “Thermoplastics have been maturing and the (original equipment manufacturer) aerospace companies have only really in the last few years started to adopt it in a bigger way.”
Continuous fiber reinforced thermoplastic composites consist mostly of fiber reinforced with resins. ATC produces both unidirectional fiber and woven fabrics in both carbon and glass.
Leach says most thermoplastics, such as cell phone cases, toys, and eyeglasses, are comprised of resins that aren’t reinforced with fibers, or are reinforced with shorter fibers. Continuous composites have a high density of long fibers reinforced with resin.
“There’s over 60% by volume of fiber in there, so it’s really fiber with resin holding it together,” says Leach.
Leach contends that this allows for better stiffness, strength, and design flexibility.
ATC currently has over 150 employees, says Jorgenson, and has the capacity for more.
“We’re not fully utilizing the capabilities of the company right now,” he says. “You always have to hire ahead … get people trained—there aren’t a bunch of thermoplastic composite engineers running around—so we have to do a lot of internal training.”
Jorgenson estimates it takes at least two years to fully train an employee on thermoplastic composites.
Part of the appeal of thermoplastic composites is the reduced cost, contends Jorgenson, along with being stronger than thermoset composites.
“The advantages are simple,” he says. “It’s a lower cost for the same reinforced fibers. The material is more expensive, but the final product is less expensive because there’s less labor involved.”
Leach adds that thermoplastic composites cost 30% less compared to thermoset composites.
Thermoset composites take longer to heat up, says Leach, and need to be cured. It also requires a chemical reaction to be transformed from a liquid to a solid state, versus a thermoplastic, which is already solid before it’s heated and pressed into its form.
The process also takes significantly less time, Jorgenson says, who contends thermoplastics take between five to 10 minutes to form, while thermoset cycles can take four to six hours because of the chemical reactions required to create them.
ATC currently produces over 70,000 parts a month, says Jorgenson.
“One of the things that I think differentiates us is we do all the steps in-house,” says Leach. “We take what’s called the prepreg material—the raw composite in the very thin sheets—we assemble them, and we make the laminate using this continuous molding process, we stamp form … and then we prepare and paint the materials.”
Thermoplastics are heated to 700 degrees Fahrenheit and pressed into the desired form using a stamp forming machine, in which they’re held until cool, says Leach.
“That’s stamp forming,” he says. “Being able to get these continuous fibers to bend around corners without buckling or breaking is part of a combination of art and science … you take a flat sheet and form it in a matter of seconds.”
Leach and Jorgenson attest that the aerospace industry is going to continue adopting thermoplastics.
“(Design engineers) don’t take full advantage of the unique characteristics of the thermoplastic composites over the other materials used in aerospace,” says Jorgenson. “You always fall back on what you know until you learn otherwise. That’s only human nature.”
Leach adds, “It is coming. It’s just that thermoplastics are still earlier on the maturity curve compared to thermosets, which have been used since the ‘60s or ‘70s.”
Leach says the aerospace industry has only begun adopting thermoplastic composites over the last 20 years, which he attributes to the slow rate of production by an industry that has multiple approval processes.
“From when an aerospace company decides we’re going to award a contract to go make these parts to when you actually start supplying them in production—typically it can be a two- to three-year cycle,” he says.
Jorgenson adds, “Or up to five years. Your production usually starts at a lower rate and then you build up. Boeing typically introduces new processes, new parts, new materials, on new airplane programs.”
ATC is primarily a Boeing supplier, Jorgenson says.
“The next new airplane out there is the middle-of-market plane, probably, and there will be the adoption of these type of materials on that airplane,” he says.
Jorgenson declines to disclose annual revenue, but he says the company anticipates doubling revenue within the next two years.
Jorgenson founded ATC in 2004 in a former 2,200-square-foot ballet studio on north Market Street where he says he spent the first few years researching and developing a thermoplastic press. The company then moved to a 6,000-sqaure-foot facility, where production on the thermoplastic composites began, he says, before moving to a larger 20,000-square-foot facility on Buckeye Avenue, in Spokane Valley.
The company built its current 67,000-square-foot home on north Lean, in Post Falls, in 2015, says Jorgenson, whose team laid out the facility for maximum efficiency.
“We have plans drawn up right now for another 50,000 square feet,” he says. “When we pull the trigger on that is a question right now.”
ATC also owns roughly 4.5 acres to the north of the facility, as well as an estimated 5 acres to the south and west of the facility, which Jorgenson says was done so the company can grow when needed and not be surrounded by other facilities.
“It’s so we don’t get trapped in,” he says. “The last thing I wanted to do was have multiple buildings scattered around the region.”
The facility currently houses nine stamp-forming processors, six nondestructive inspection tanks, and two lamination lines for making the sheets.
Nondestructive inspection tanks fire an ultrasonic beam through the material to check the quality of the product.
“We do all the inspections in-house,” says Leach. “So, that could be visual, dimensional, nondestructive … something that is very specific to aerospace is you have to do a lot of nondestructive inspection to check the quality of the parts.”
Jorgenson adds, “We probably have an auditor or visitors auditing our processes every other week … it’s a very internally regulated industry.”
ATC is also working in conjunction with Boeing on a research and development project on thermoplastic composite rib parts for planes for the national Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, says Leach, which it plans to present this month at the Society for the Advancement of Material and Process Engineering conference and exhibition, in Charlotte, North Carolina.
“It’s called a Rapid High-Performance Molding of Structural Thermoplastic composite parts,” Leach says. “It is building a rib, basically an aircraft rib … throughout the airplane. It’s a pretty common type of aircraft structure.”
Jorgenson adds that the ribs aren’t intended for any particular aircraft.
“It’s a demonstration that it can be done,” he says.
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