Ever wonder where, or how, some of the parts on your helicopter were made? When I say “made,” I’m talking about made from scratch...like turning a raw block of steel, aluminum, or titanium into an impeller or a transmission housing. In aerospace, it’s the highest level of engineering and manufacturing, where margins of error are so small that they are measured by laser beams.
I recently had the opportunity to learn more about a helicopter parts manufacturing powerhouse by visiting Aerometals in El Dorado Hills, California. Founded in 1984, Aerometals has spent the past 33 years transforming itself into a full-service manufacturing business that serves not only the helicopter world, but also the aerospace industry as a whole.
My first meeting with Aerometals owner Rex Kamphefner was an interesting mix of intimidation and intrigue. Initially he was quiet and somewhat stoic, which made for a difficult read on his personality. He’s one of those people who seem to listen more than they speak. When he does speak he’s brief, concise and clear. He does not waste any time dancing around any particular point, but cuts straight to the chase. That’s the businessman and engineer in him.
On the other hand, once warmed up and trust gained, his human side shows with some seriously funny, dry humor. I was at the manufacturing facility with a crew of three doing video and photography, and on a couple occasions he had us all laughing. At one point, while we were using a wheeled utility cart to create a rolling video shot across the shop floor, he emerged from a side office and jumped onto the front of the cart and struck a George-Washington-crossing-the-Delaware pose as we ambled our way through the shop...talk about funny!
It’s this balance of competence and affability that not only gives the owner character but also breeds company success, as those same traits seemingly permeate the culture of the Aerometals family of employees. No wonder people and companies enjoy doing business with them. I enjoyed just being with them!
Since 1984, Kamphefner has forged his $40 million per year, 160-employee business beyond being just an MD 500 aftermarket parts manufacturer. Manufacturing everything from S-92 inlet barrier filters, to MD 500 skids, to F-18 tailhooks, to Boeing 787 landing gear components, Aerometals has evolved to be a full-fledged aerospace manufacturing company that hangs its hat on the slogan “We do it ALL.”
Aerometals supports four main sectors of the aerospace industry: commercial helicopter platforms, U.S. military contracts, foreign military sales, and OEM airframers.
As a business that holds more than 300 FAA certified PMAs (Parts Manufacturing Approval), the company’s best known for its support of the global MD 500 fleet with aftermarket parts. Recently, through the acquisition of FDC/Aerofilter, the company also has become a power player in the design, certification, and manufacturing of inlet barrier filters for many different helicopter models.
At every opportunity to stretch beyond its core strength as an aftermarket parts manufacturer, Aerometals has risen to the occasion, which in turn has created new growth and capability.
“One of the keys to our success is that we do a lot of little things well,” Kamphefner explained. “By contrast to companies who have one home-run product, we don’t really hit home runs. We get to first base – a lot. Little jobs done right, the paperwork’s good, complying with all regulations; doing that over and over again has been our real forte.”
On the domestic military side of the business, as the company expanded its capabilities it was able to earn business from Uncle Sam. As a trusted provider of parts and services to the U.S. military, Aerometals now services approximately 500 military contracts per year that make up 35% of its annual revenue.
Aerometals services just about every aircraft in the U.S. military arsenal, on both the fixed-wing and rotary-wing sides. C-130, KC-135, C-5, A-10, F-15, F-16, F-18, UH-60, CH-47...there are few military airframes for which it does not provide some level of service. Many military platforms require the use of a variety of metals, from stainless steel to superalloys like Inconel and titanium, and everything in between. So having the engineering expertise and manufacturing processes in place puts most any project within reach of Aerometals.
Critical Safety Items (CSI) are airframe components integral to the safe operation of the airframe. Parts such as wing fittings, landing gear, skins and nose cones fall into this category. Aerometals has built up its reputation with the military to such a degree that it’s become the largest CSI supplier to the U.S. military in the western region.
Aerometals also supports many U.S. allies that operate western manufactured aircraft. South Korea for example operates nearly 200 MD500 (OH-6) helicopters, and Aerometals’ support is a critical component to keeping them operational.
Although it’s a comparatively smaller part of the Aerometals business line, the company also has become a reliable manufacturing partner to several OEM airframers such as Boeing and Northrop Grumman. It’s a real testimony to its manufacturing capabilities when a small company known primarily for being a helicopter aftermarket parts manufacturer is producing landing gear components for the Boeing 787.
Design, Fly, Certify, Manufacture
Whether it’s for an OEM, civil helicopter operator, the U.S. military, or a foreign military, this AS9100 certificated manufacturer has the capability to complete virtually any project – from concept engineering to manufacturing and every point in between.
Engineering design is one of Aerometals’ core strengths, and this power is unusual given the size of the company. Of the company’s 160-person talent pool, 30-plus are mechanical, electrical and aeronautical engineers.
“Our competitive advantage lies in the competence of our people,” Senior Director of Business Development Tony Bohm reflected. “For example, the technical prowess in our engineering department is on par with much larger aerospace companies. Our team’s makeup is a perfect balance of experience and youth that not only brings high levels of technical competence to projects, but also extreme levels of innovation when developing solutions.”
The integrity and character of Aerometals is reflected in its innovative projects such as the MD 500 engine oil cooler impeller. It’s not the sexiest or most exciting part on the aircraft, but face it, it’s a really important part. As it turns out, the part’s design and construction was the same for 40 years.
Formed of more than 30 individual parts that were brazed together, the oil cooler impeller frequently experienced cracking and would need to be repaired or replaced. Seeking a better solution for its customers, Aerometals designed and certified a one-piece impeller made from a single block of aluminum on a five-axis CNC technology, which eliminated the common failure mode.
And this leads us into the fly and certify side of the Aerometals business. This is the area that sets it apart from the competition, especially in the helicopter industry. It’s the area Aerometals has really invested in, and focused on, in hopes of growing its business. It’s one thing to manufacture a helicopter part that already exists on specifications. It’s a whole other world to engineer a solution from scratch, manufacture it, get it into a helicopter and into the air through flight testing, then have the part pass a rigorous certification process with the FAA.
A perfect case example of this revolves around the company’s line of inlet barrier filter systems (IBFs) that it manufactures for Airbus, MD, Bell, and Sikorsky models of helicopters. These systems are designed to filter out contaminants from the air that’s being drawn into the turbine engine, thereby protecting it from excessive wear and tear.
Aerometals is a global leader in the IBF market, which is a significant part of its business. As such it also has taken a leadership role in the multi-year effort to keep the FAA from modifying existing certification standards that would not only do irreparable harm to IBF manufacturers, but also have a negative impact on operators who need IBFs. Aerometals has been a proactive participant in working with the FAA to develop practical standards for IBF certification. Its long-term persistence paid off when it was able to come around full circle and complete certification of its most costly IBF project yet, the S-92 IBF.
Aerometals foresaw an opportunity in the Sikorsky S-92 market and set out to design, test and certify an IBF system for the airframe. The S-92 helicopter is a workhorse in several sectors of the industry, but it is mostly used in offshore oil support that faces some of the harshest operating environments in the world.
Starting with a blank sheet of paper, the company’s engineering team dug deep into its innovation banks and designed and manufactured a prototype IBF system for the S-92. The next phase was to partner with an S-92 operator on extensive ground and flight tests to collect and analyze performance data. After a lengthy ground and flight test process, Aerometals was able to certify its S-92 IBF system with the FAA and is now manufacturing them along with 15 other FAA certified IBF systems.
There’s power in people
Looking at all the technology and advanced machinery on the shop floor, it’s clear that Aerometals is not afraid to risk capital and invest in assets that will allow it to improve efficiency or expand its capability. Having said that, by all appearances, there’s no doubt that everyone in the management chain sees people as their greatest asset and key contributor to the company’s success. This was a common theme among all of the key managers we met.
Because manufacturing techniques always are evolving, investments in training people to stay on the leading edge of innovation is critical to the company’s bottom line.
Executive Director of Ops Dave Postema told Rotorcraft Pro, “Doing such a wide variety of work creates a real challenge for us from a manufacturing standpoint. The way we overcome that challenge is through the strength, training and experience of our teams.”
When asked about Aerometals’ people and its culture, Kamphefner explained, “This may sound counterintuitive, but I think one of our business advantages is that I don’t have an MBA,” alluding to the point that it’s not just about dollars and data. “Instead, I run my business treating people the way I would want to be treated because I have a lot of respect for ordinary working men and women. Sure we look for good technicians, machinists, and engineers, but when you treat people like people, they appreciate it and we get positive feedback for it.” Aerometals indicated that it has a large group of employees who have been there since the beginning, and nearly two-thirds have been there for 15 years or more. Given the amount of work Aerometals’ does to support the U.S. Military, another interesting statistic is that nearly 40% of its workforce are military veterans.
The net result of this positive attitude towards the teams performing the work has paid off through a workforce with an esprit de corps that is palpable on the shop floor. During our visit we saw groups of people outside playing games during breaks, and morale seemed to be high among the teams. Not even I was immune from the ribbing as I made my rounds to the workstations to meet people and learn what they do. One of the gents running a press pulled me aside and jokingly said, “Make sure you tell my boss that I behaved, and wasn’t joking around.”
Fun and family extends beyond the borders of work as the company tries to do extra little things to promote camaraderie. Sometimes it will offer to take employees (and family members) on a ride in one of the company’s helicopters. It also has a co-ed softball team, and it even offers an annual family whitewater rafting trip. Who wouldn’t love that?
Doubled x 4
Because of Aerometals’ people and capability, it has not stopped growing for the last 33 years. In fact, it has doubled its footprint four times since the early days. In 1995 the company had 20 employees and operated out of a 17,000-square-foot building. By 1998 it had to double that space and move into a 35,000 sf facility, part of the space it occupies now.
Postema explained that expansion is required if the company not only wants to introduce new capabilities, but more importantly, it also wants to uphold its number one and two priorities when working on client projects. Those priorities are high-quality manufacturing and delivering on time, in that order. Those are the top two demands of its customers. Providing a competitive cost also is a goal, he added, but it never will be at the expense of the first two goals because the stakes are too high in aerospace.
Apparently using those two goals as the driver and benchmark to customer satisfaction is working, because in 2008 Aerometals doubled in size again by expanding its building to 75,000 sf. As of this writing the company is completing a $7 million expansion project incorporating another 75,000 sf building adjacent to its current facility to provide a 150,000 sf campus. This expansion gives the company room to grow its capabilities, focus on streamlining operations, and make its manufacturing processes even more efficient.
On the subject of growth and expansion for the Aerometals team, I think Dave Postema said it best and simplest: “When you are really good at what you do, companies want you to do more of it, and that requires expansion.” And expanding they are.
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