July 2, 2012

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Flying High on Wings of Fiber

Utah’s Aerospace Industry Soars Ahead

Dan Donahoe

July 2, 2012

Art Meets Technology
Some industries are simply cooler than others. Aerospace reigns supreme among cool industries, because flying brings fantasy into reality. Our fascination with flight is ancient. In Greek mythology, the craftsman Daedalus built wings of wax enabling his son Icarus to fly. In science fiction, Arthur C. Clark conjured human powered flight in a sky-bike. Just as it is said that life mimics art, these dreams of flight have since become reality.

In the most compelling technically focused speech of all time, President Kennedy said “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because it is easy, but because it is hard.” Who can forget the sense of wonder watching the Apollo 11 landing on the moon in 1969?

From air travel to space exploration, advances in aerospace have turned ancient dreams into reality. This is a gripping story of the serendipitous path of aerospace, and how the State of Utah has helped this awe-inspiring industry soar to new heights.

Taking Flight
Utah has a storied legacy in the aerospace industry. From innovations like the James Webb Space Telescope to companies like Jet Blue Airlines, the State has been a leading aerospace player for many decades. Today, Utah is considered one of the nation’s top states for concentration of aerospace companies and employment. Companies like ATK, Hexcel Corporation, The Boeing Company and L3 Communications have discovered vast opportunities in Utah, ranging from the State’s solid workforce to a healthy business infrastructure to an innovative culture.

Within the aerospace industry, Utah is considered a top leader in the relatively new composites sector. Stronger than steel, composites are replacing the traditional metals found in technology ranging from airplanes to outdoor recreation products.

Utah’s success with composites began largely with ATK, formerly known as Thiokol Corporation, which helped the State stake claim as a national composites leader. The company, now headquartered in Clearfield, Utah, got its start in the late 1920s based on an accidental invention of a polymeric sealant named “Thiokol.” Beginning in 1945, scientists at Cal Tech (now JPL) discovered that Thiokol’s product was the magic component they sought to improve rocket fuel, and Thiokol found itself in the rocket business. The company opened its first Utah-based plant in 1957 to build ICBM rocket motors and has since expanded in the State many times over.

ATK was key to introducing composite structures to the nation’s aerospace industry, initially manufacturing the components to serve as rocket motor cases. At that time, Hercules, initially an explosives manufacturer, competed with Thiokol in Utah. Today, the materials component of Hercules is part of Hexcel, and the structures component is part of ATK. Thus competence in composites aerospace structures began in Utah, and a number of successful companies grew from these beginnings.

“Since the breakthrough of converting polymer to carbon string in the 1950s, Utah has been at the forefront of graphite composite structures,” says Bob Hellekson, ATK program manager. “Products such as tennis racket frames, golf club shafts, race car chassis and eventually aerospace structures were developed to sell raw graphite materials owned by ATK (formerly Hercules). As launch vehicle cases, airframe assemblies and spacecraft structures became more viable businesses, ATK began producing flight spacecraft hardware and developing advanced technologies for processing graphite structures.”

Composites Reach New Heights
Composites gradually made their way into commercial aircraft, as the industry adopted the technology piece by piece. In 1972, the NASA Aircraft Energy Efficiency Program introduced composites into its aircraft. Today, composites are considered key to modern aerospace. For example, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner is composed of 50 percent composite materials.

As the global demand for composites has skyrocketed, Utah has proven again to be a leader in this innovative industry. There are well over 100 Utah firms in composites, and many firms producing aerospace composites, such as ATK, Hexcel and ITT Excelis, have expanded facilities or made plans to expand in Utah within the 2011–2012 timeframe. Due to Utah’s unique competence in composites and a complete supply chain in place, other firms are spinning off to produce consumer goods made of composites.

Boeing, for example, recently opened a new composite assembly line at its Salt Lake-based facility, where it will build the vertical fin assemblies for the 787 Dreamliner. Composites engineering firm ITT Excelis has plans to add nearly 3,000 highly trained technicians and manufacturers at its Utah-based composites factory. And in 2011, ATK opened a 615,000-square-foot facility where workers will manufacture composite-fiber airframe components to be used on the Airbus A350.  

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