FEATURE // 2012/09/10
Greater Than Its Parts
Most people in the helicopter industry know Aerometals as a supplier of MD 500 parts. Thats not surprising: the company is a leading provider of parts manufacturer approval (PMA) parts for the MD 500, and hundreds of operators around the world rely on Aerometals to keep their machines flying.
What many of these operators dont realize, however, is that Aerometals is much, much more than just an MD 500 parts supplier. With 125 employees working out of an impressive, 75,000-square-foot facility in El Dorado Hills, Calif. (about 30 miles east of Sacramento), Aerometals has the ability to design and create virtually anything out of metal. And so it does, manufacturing an enormous variety of aerospace parts for the United States Department of Defense (DoD), in addition to hundreds of MD 500 parts. Among its other major contracts, Aerometals manufactures brake load cells for the Boeing 787 and supports TOW (tube-launched, optically tracked, wire-command-link guided) missile systems for the government of South Korea. Moreover, having recently acquired FDC/Aerofilter (see p.17, Vertical, June-July 2010), Aerometals also manufactures a wide range of helicopter inlet barrier filter systems (IBFs), and is in the process of certifying even more IBFs.
With worldwide sales of $33 million US last year, Aerometals is clearly more than just a parts supplier its an aerospace company with a global reach. Observed Aerometals co-owner Rex Kamphefner, Every shop-floor tour I give elicits the same response: Wow, I didnt know you did so many different things!
To truly appreciate the scale of Aerometals operations, its necessary to visit the companys facility in El Dorado Hills. Here, the main shop floor hums with the activity of 20 computer-numerical-control (CNC) machines, each of which cost more than $100,000 US. These sophisticated machines are at the heart of Aerometals manufacturing operations, used to transform three-dimensional CAD (computer-aided design) models into metal parts with mind-bogglingly complex surfaces. We have a lot of old-school machinists who manufacture nearly miraculous things on a daily basis using five-axis [CNC] mills, and do it with astonishing precision, said Kamphefner. We like titanium forgings, magnesium castings, Hastelloy, Inconel not even carbon fiber can stop us. But its not all machining: a few feet away, journeyman welders are creating 11-foot long titanium ducts with diabolical S-curves for the Lockheed C-5A Galaxy military transport plane.
Supplementing the CNC equipment are a number of other specialty apparatuses such as a water-jet cutter, a laser part marker, high-speed balancing machines, an Instron fatigue test machine, a press brake and an autoclave that round out the companys manufacturing capabilities. Noted Aerometals other co-owner, Guy Icenogle: This is a business where you have to buy a couple of $100,000 machines every year, just to keep up.
Aerometals doesnt just manufacture aerospace parts, however: it also designs them, employing 30 engineers who work in offices adjacent to the manufacturing shop. All drawings created by Aerometals engineers are reviewed by its own machinists as part of the approval process. Left to their own devices, said Icenogle, engineers will specify tolerances which drive up the cost of manufacturing, but add no [tangible] improvement to the part. The advice of experienced old hands adds a lot to the manufacturability of our products, and ultimately the bottom line.
This unique combination of design and manufacturing capabilities reflects the respective strengths of Kamphefner and Icenogle, who came together formally in 1998 to create Aerometals as it exists today. Icenogle brought a strong background in machining to the partnership, while Kamphefner brought experience as an electrical engineer: before getting into manufacturing, he spent 10 years working on helicopter TOW anti-tank missile systems, mostly in South Korea, both for Hughes Aircraft and an independent contractor. Kamphefners language skills and connections in South Korea are also how the company got into the MD 500 parts business, as the Republic of Koreas army uses a variant of the MD 500 to carry TOW missiles.
Today, Aerometals offers more than 200 U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approved parts for the MD 500, from bearings to tailbooms. Indeed, Kamphefner joked, the company offers so many different parts for the helicopter model, it will soon be able to build one from scratch. Beyond simply replicating original equipment manufacturer (OEM) parts, however, Aerometals usually improves upon them (for example, its skid-tube [tip] lights are cast aluminum sturdy enough to stand on rather than the plastic of the original version). Engineers are always looking for ways to make things better, said Kamphefner. Its a curse.
As an MD 500 owner and pilot himself, Kamphefner has an added incentive to improve upon existing parts designs. In fact, one of the primary reasons why he bought an MD 500 in 1998 was to better understand the needs of his customers. Another reason was to demonstrate to the helicopter industry that Aerometals genuinely believes in the quality of the parts it manufactures: We flew the 500 to HAI [Helicopter Association Internationals annual Heli-Expo] so that the other operators [could] see that we fly with our own products. Kamphefner still operates the MD 500 (and recently added to the Aerometals fleet with a Eurocopter AS350 B2 AStar acquired from the Los Angeles County Sheriffs Department). He routinely takes his employees flying, which is not only a fun perk for them, but also drives home the critical importance of the parts theyre designing and manufacturing. What I like about flying with an Aerometals PMA part is that I know the fellow who made it. In fact, I probably took his wife or kids flying with parts dad made.
Focus on Quality
Aerometals exemplifies the new level of rigor that has become associated with PMA parts in general. Although these parts still tend to be significantly less expensive than OEM parts, they no longer carry the stigma they once did, thanks to higher manufacturing standards and increased oversight. For instance, before receiving FAA approval, Aerometals parts are subjected to an exhaustive process of design review and testing. In some cases, this can require a tremendous amount of capital investment, such as the construction of a dedicated transmission test cell for testing main rotor gears at full power and full r.p.m. for 100 hours.
The manufacturing process at Aerometals is supported by a rigorous AS9100 quality management system, which requires strict controls on materials and products. For example, raw materials are bar-coded upon arrival and tracked throughout the manufacturing process, as metals with radically different properties can look deceptively similar. During manufacturing, each batch of parts is accompanied by electronic travelers, which are something like recipes for manufacturing. Kamphefner explained the analogy: If you are making the same part number repeatedly, and you use the same traveler processes, procedures, programming and tooling every time, you close out the opportunity for quality escapes.
Finally, Aerometals guarantees the quality of its products through extensive in-house testing and external reviews. Finished parts are inspected using two coordinate-measuring machines, in addition to manual inspections to assure the quality of the last part made is as good as the first. The company also welcomes external audits. Said Kamphefner, We are audited at least weekly by someone or another ISO [International Organization for Standardization; for the AS9100 standards], FAA, DoD, Boeing, Lockheed [Martin], Goodrich, Northrop [Grumman], Sikorsky and the U.S. Navy, plus relentless internal self-audits. Not to mention two IRS [Internal Revenue Service] audits last fall, Equal [Employment] Opportunity Commission, California State Employment Development Department, insurance underwriters, air quality resources board [California Air Resources Board], EPA [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] and the fire department. Thats the short list and Im under-exaggerating. Not being audited makes me paranoid. Besides, any auditor who can show me what were missing is improving my company.
This strong emphasis on quality control has allowed Aerometals to compete favorably for DoD contracts, another cornerstone of its business. Weve done over 3,000 contracts for the U.S. DoD over the years, said Icenogle. Every manned aircraft in the USAF [U.S. Air Force] has some parts made by Aerometals on it, except the [Northrop Grumman] B-2. DoD has a source approval process not unlike the FAA PMA process; in either case, the stack of test documentation should weigh more than the part itself. The upshot of all this effort is that the DoD quality rating for Aerometals is 99.83 percent.
Aerometals also leverages its rigorous quality control system in the manufacture of brake load cells for the Boeing 787, which provide electrical feedback to the flight control system so it knows how much braking force is being applied. This particular contract emphasizes not only Aerometals manufacturing capabilities, but also its electrical competencies: A lot of mechanical engineers are scared of wires, said Kamphefner. But, we like electro-mechanical projects.
Likewise, Aerometals manufactures electrical and machined components for TOW missile systems, drawing on Kamphefners long experience. TOW is getting old, he said, but some of our international customers still use it, so we have gotten into reproducing obsolete integrated circuits using modern surface-mount technology, as well as [reproducing] accelerometers, and actuators which have gone out of production.
Aerometals newest line of business is FDC/Aerofilter, which it acquired two years ago. Of course, Aerometals had been doing contract manufacturing for FDC/Aerofilter for 10 years before it bought the company, so it wasnt exactly new to the filter business. And since the acquisition, Aerometals has devoted more of its engineers to developing new filter models: inlet barrier filters for the Sikorsky S-76D and S-92, AgustaWestland AW139, and Eurocopter EC225 are currently in progress. The commitment is a serious one, as creating new filters is a time-consuming process: FAA certification requires a series of tests that can span many months and some of these tests are involved, to say the least. For example, said Kamphefner, his employees recently made a chicken cannon to launch a one-kilogram [2.2-pound] chicken at the air filter at speeds of over 190 miles per hour to prove the filter can withstand a bird strike. It was fun messy, but fun.
Steady Growth and Ongoing Loyalty
Uniquely, Aerometals is defined as much by its employees as by the products it creates.
At Aerometals, there is a pervasive culture of innovation, with self-motivated employees constantly finding better, more efficient ways of doing things. Appropriately, the mood on the shop floor is strikingly upbeat. Remarked Kamphefner, Its interesting negative employees tend to find their way out the door. We do a lot of things to build camaraderie, like whitewater rafting, barbecues and coat-and-tie Christmas dinner parties.
The results of those efforts are also seen in employee retention and loyalty. For instance, although Aerometals hires talented machinists and welders from outside the company, many of its employees have worked their way up through the ranks. And, even with Aerometals doubling in size over the last six years, nearly half its employees have been with the company for more than seven years.
As a next step, human resources manager Lorie Symon said the company has recently shifted to a team model of management, with manufacturing employees working in small groups with team leaders selected for their leadership and motivational skills rather than supervisors. The goal, explained Symon, is to not only improve workplace efficiencies, but to also preserve the small-company spirit of camaraderie as Aerometals continues to grow.
And, that growth doesnt appear to be slowing anytime soon. Every year is so good, we wonder how were going to top it, but somehow we always manage to, remarked Symon.
Kamphefner agreed, noting that, Ive been saying the same thing since 2003: Last year was the best year ever.
Even with all the companys prior and planned future growth, though, MD 500 operators can rest easy: the helicopter will remain an important part of Aerometals business plan for the foreseeable future. Its success in other sectors simply demonstrates the breadth and depth of its manufacturing capabilities capabilities that will no doubt be applied to its constantly expanding product line in years to come. As such, both figuratively and literally, Aerometals really does seem to be greater than the sum of its parts.
Elan Head is an FAA Gold Seal flight instructor with helicopter and instrument helicopter ratings. She holds commercial helicopter licenses in the U.S., Canada and Australia, and is also an award-winning journalist who has written for a diverse array of magazines and newspapers since the late-1990s.