Innovation Only Possible With the Right SupportFri, 12/01/2017 - 08:55
Being the first to do something can be a competitive advantage in a growing industry, but being the first does not come without a price, according to Franklin Gaxiola, Plant Manager of Ducommun Incorporated. “Being a specialized company is both a blessing and a curse,” he says. “We can offer clients what no other company can but there is not enough specialized talent to participate in our processes.”
Focused on composite and aluminum component assemblies, Ducommun is among the few companies in Sonora that can offer aerospace clients lightweight aerostructures. The problem Gaxiola has found is that the local talent lacks the necessary skills to participate in the manufacturing of these components. “We have found young talent eager to learn new things but we cannot really ask for the skills and knowledge we need because they are not out there,” he says. “We had to make one of our manufacturing lines into a training center for new recruits so they could understand the basics of production processes.”
The situation is changing, however, and Gaxiola has a positive perspective regarding talent development in Sonora. More universities are offering aerospace engineering degrees in Guaymas and Obregon supported by an educational model oriented toward aerospace technicians, which according to Pedro Mar, Rector of Guaymas Technological University (UTG) (see interview, Chapter 7), is now used by 114 schools nationwide. “Quality is now being embedded in academic programs, as well as English training, which was not common in the past,” says Gaxiola.
Having skilled talent is essential, considering that Ducommun is planning to grow its operations in Sonora. The company has tripled its production capacity to 5,570m2 and it has worked with local suppliers to ensure a seamless local operation. Although the company was not worried about its capabilities to transform sheet metal and composites into final components, its operations demanded chemical pretreatments that could not be done in-house. Instead of sending material to the US to be treated, Gaxiola found a local supplier wanting to be certified in aerospace operations and invested in its capabilities. “The biggest difference in the industry is that now companies are talking to each other, helping other suppliers develop their capabilities to participate in the industry and finding common challenges we all face,” he says.
The company has now finished two contracts with Boeing and Embraer and is investing in its proprietary technology called Ducommun’s Foam Matrix Core System™. Aerostructures are commonly built with two plies of aluminum or composite material and a layer of a honeycomb structure in-between them. Bonding these materials is challenging for clients, which is why Ducommun modified the material of that honeycomb structure to a foam that molds between the two other plies. Instead of having a two-step bonding process, the foam needs only be injected into the component to obtain the same structural strength. “The resulting aerostructure is lighter, as well as easier and faster to manufacture,” says Gaxiola. “We have presented this new technology to our customers and we have received positive feedback."
Ducommun wants to establish its foam matrix as the company’s flagship solution. Market research company Markets and Markets expects the composite material market to represent US$115 billion by 2022, with a compound annual growth rate of 8.13 percent between 2017 and 2022, mainly driven by the aerospace and defense industries.
Gaxiola is also betting on an upgrade in Ducommun’s Mexican operations to attract more projects. Previously, Ducommun’s manufacturing process had two stages, the first in the US and the second in Mexico. All the bonding was done north of the border and the more labor-intensive assemblies were performed in Mexico. The company is building a new production line at its plant in the US and Gaxiola’s goal is to mirror that in Sonora. Ducommun is introducing automation equipment mostly to handle all its heavy tooling components and Gaxiola is planning to also automate the company’s paint shop as well. “With our new production line, we will place much more importance on adhesives. We will be able to handle the entire process in our Sonora facility,” he says. “Our goal is to finish modernizing our facilities next year.”