January 1, 2012

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Article

Flying High

Utah’s Advanced Composites Industry Finds its Wings

Gaylen Webb

January 1, 2012

The Boeing 787 Dreamliner—dubbed “the plastic plane”—is finally in service. As the world’s most anticipated aircraft flies high, so too soars Utah’s advanced composites industry.

When each new Dreamliner lifts off the tarmac, approximately $1.5 million worth of advanced composite parts made by Hexcel Corporation lift off with it. Hexcel has been at the epicenter of Utah’s advanced composites industry since 1971. Not that every Hexcel part for the Dreamliner is made in Utah, mind you, but Hexcel’s Salt Lake City manufacturing plant is a major contributor of advanced composite components, says Michael Bacal, Hexcel communications and investor relations manager.

As global demand increases for advanced composites—those stronger-than-steel carbon fibers that are steadily displacing metals in aerospace, aviation, alternative energy, outdoor recreation and numerous other industries—Utah’s position as a leader in this sector continues to grow. The state is home to 23 advanced composites companies that employ more than 10,000 workers.

Take Off

Last June, Boeing commemorated the opening of its new composite vertical fin assembly line at its production facility in Salt Lake City. Operated by Boeing Fabrication, the 35,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art composite assembly line builds the vertical fin assemblies for the 787 Dreamliners and supports fabrication activities across all Boeing commercial airplane models.

Also last June, global defense contractor ITT Corp. announced plans to expand its Salt Lake City composites engineering and manufacturing facility—recently spun off as ITT Exelis. At the time, the company said it would add more than 100 higher-end technicians, manufacturing engineers and quality control personnel by the end of 2011 and would eventually hire as many as 2,700 workers in the expansion.

Expansion plans at ITT Exelis are still underway and the company, which is located at the Salt Lake International Center, says it will begin moving into a nearby 300,000-square-foot facility shortly after the start of 2012.

Hexcel’s Utah facility has been enjoying its own growth spurt. Bacal says the facility is adding more carbon fiber capacity and the company plans to increase its hiring.

At an Alliant Techsystems (ATK) facility in Clearfield, computer-driven robotic machines weave composite fibers into wing skins and other critical parts for military aircraft. Next door, ATK opened in August its new 615,000-square-foot, $100 million Commercial Center of Excellence facility. ATK President and CEO Mark DeYoung has described the center as a “key component” in the company’s strategy to capitalize on growing demand for more-efficient commercial aircraft. Workers there manufacture composite-fiber airframe components for the Airbus A350 commercial jet—the next “plastic plane” to use composite-based parts for its wings and fuselage. ATK workers also manufacture advanced composite engine parts for General Electric and Rolls Royce.

The new Clearfield plant serves as the headquarters for ATK Aerospace Structures and is expected to create approximately 800 high-paying jobs over the next 20 years.

One of Utah’s latest comers to its advanced composites sector is Janicki Industries, which last fall brought online its $19.5 million 100,000-square-foot precision composites manufacturing facility in Layton, near Hill Air Force Base. The new plant supports Janicki’s work on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program and houses the company’s proprietary 5-axis mills that it uses to machine various aircraft parts.

And the most recent entrant into Utah’s advanced composites scene is Houston-based Fiberspar, a manufacturer of high strength fiber-reinforced spoolable pipe for use in the oil and gas industry. The company is building a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility that will serve its growing market in the Rockies and Western Canada. Fiberspar will employ 276 people in its Utah facility.

Industry and Education Alliances

Many of Utah’s growing list of advanced composites companies started or expanded operations here because of an important common denominator—access to a highly skilled workforce. Eight Utah colleges and universities offer training and specialized programs in the advanced composites field.

For example, Weber State University offers a plastics and composites emphasis, while the University of Utah offers a composites component as part of its engineering program. Salt Lake Community College has a composites training center and technician lab. Other schools to offer composites training programs include Brigham Young University, Utah State University, and the Ogden-Weber, Davis and Mountainland Applied Technology Colleges.

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