Washington State Fashions Advanced Materials Breakthroughs

Washington's composites industry started with military projects. Today it's a vital part of innovation in aerospace, automotive, green energy, marine industry sectors and other commercial uses.

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That sleek electric hybrid BMW zipping down the road has its roots in Washington. Oh, and so does that Boeing 787 Dreamliner soaring overhead.


Both state-of-the-art vehicles rely on materials and parts produced by Washington's advanced materials and composites cluster.

The state is a global center of excellence in composites and advanced materials, on par with the composites clusters in Germany and Japan. The materials of tomorrow and the technology and machines to make them are being developed today in Washington state.

Washington's history in composites dates to the 1960s when Heath Tecna, an aircraft parts supplier, produced materials for defense customers. Back then, only the military could afford the technology. Now, more than 100 companies generate $3.3 billion in annual revenues as composites become an everyday part of aerospace, automotive, green energy and marine technology, as well as such recreational uses as golf clubs, bicycles and hockey sticks.

Creative minds are finding new uses for composites, which are usually a combination of graphite filaments and resins. The resulting material is lighter and stronger than aluminum.

For instance, Art Sauls, general manager at Composite Solutions, says the Auburn company designed and built the lavatory module for the Boeing C-17 Globemaster. The result was a lighter and stronger assembly that saves fuel for the Air Force and is safer for the aircrew.

Spreading Influence

Advanced materials enterprise can be found in every part of the state. The Olympic Composites Corridor, stretching from Port Angeles to Frederickson, is working to fully develop the composites industry cluster in the region and leverage its assets, including the One-Stop-Shop at the Composites Manufacturing Center (CMC) in Port Angeles.

For BMW, carbon fiber paneling is produced in a joint venture with SGL in Moses Lake. Other major manufacturers include Hexcel, formerly Heath Tecna, in Kent, which still produces parts for military and commercial aircraft; Composite Solutions in Auburn; Toray Composites America at the Port of Tacoma; and Triumph Group in Spokane.

Flow International Corp., a manufacturer of abrasive water jet systems that cut, trim and pierce carbon parts, is one of the companies that benefits from the ecosystem of composite companies in the state.

"Being in the middle of the aerospace cluster we're part of the family, and if we were out in the middle of nowhere there would not be the same impact for us," says Jean-Christophe Vidil, global product manager for Kent-based Flow International.

Connections were important to Angeles Composites Technologies Inc. as well. Company executives decided to keep ACT in Port Angeles and expand rather than relocate to another state, despite being recruited to do so. The Port of Port Angeles invested state and federal funds to create a composites campus, including new buildings for ACT. That was enough for ACT to stay put.

Composites companies are drawn by a number of advantages.For instance, Washington's electricity costs are among the lowest industrial power costs of any state as low as 2.5 cents per kilowatt hour, with a scalable electric grid.

A network of world-renowned research institutes supports the industry, including Automobili Lamborghini Advanced Composite Structures Laboratory at the University of Washington, the Center for Excellence for Aerospace and Advanced Materials based in Everett, and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Training for the Future

A well-trained workforce poised to support high-tech manufacturing is another plus.

The community and technical college system has developed six-month certification programs that equip workers for composites manufacturing positions. Each year several hundred graduates are prepared to take jobs in the growing sector. The graduate placement rate is about 90 percent, says Mary Kaye Bredeson, executive director, Center of Excellence, Aerospace and Advanced Material Manufacturing.

Various colleges have developed specialties, such as aerospace, green energy, medical devices and marine technology. New programs in non-destructive testing and inspection of composite materials as well as recycling are part of the Washington State Composites Training Consortium.

"That really showcases that Washington is serious about bringing companies here because we have skilled workforce from which to hire," Bredeson says.


Gary Wollenhaupt is a freelance writer covering economic development, travel, technology and green home building. more

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Fri, 10/27/2017 - 19:55