Being home to composites businesses is good for state’s economic future

June 15, 2014 

— The rectangular block of plastic foam doesn’t feel significantly different from similar material you might find in a thousand consumer or packaging applications. Certainly not heavier or denser – a thumbnail applied with moderate pressure is sufficient to score a shallow groove in it.

But the material on display at General Plastics’ booth at the recent SAMPE convention and exhibition in Seattle is not an ordinary material. Last-a-Foam FR4700 Series High-Temp Tooling Board can be machined into the molds and forms used to shape parts and components made of composite materials. According to a spec sheet distributed at the show, the foam can be used at peak temperatures of up to 400 degrees Fahrenheit, or continuous-use high temperatures of up to 350 degrees.

The exhibition-hall floor was populated with booths staffed by representatives of companies producing exotic, advanced and high-tech materials and machinery, which is only appropriate since SAMPE stands for the Society for the Advancement of Material and Process Engineering (although the organization rarely uses the full title).

The materials and processes on display are exotic, advanced, high-tech — and economically important, if your region, state or country expects to play in any of the industries expected to generate growth and jobs in the coming decades. The technology involved might be deep and intense, but the applications of carbon-fiber composites, and materials like FR4700 to transform those composites into real-world products, long ago migrated from the more out-there uses such as in aerospace to the more mundane, such as baseball bats. Other technologies such as 3-D printing are headed that way.

The good news, then, for Washington is that the state is a player in the world of advanced materials and processes, as evidenced by the companies and organizations (more than a dozen, according to a very informal count) from the state that had booth space.

The even better news is that Tacoma and Pierce County are players, too.

General Plastics, for example, is a Tacoma company launched in 1941 to make wood preservatives but making the shift in the 1950s to polyurethane foam for aerospace applications. So is Pacific Coast Composites (Lakewood, actually), a supplier of composite materials.

Toray Composites is a local company (although it wasn’t an exhibitor at SAMPE). And while it may not be headquartered here, Boeing is a major user of composite materials and technology, and plans to increase that with the 777x. Boeing’s Frederickson plant already produces composite components for the 777 and 787, and will build the tail section for the next iteration of the 777.

No part of the state can claim to be at the heart of Washington’s composites sector. Companies making products from composite fibers are scattered from Hoquiam to Spokane, Bellingham to Vancouver. The Kent Valley has a concentration of composites companies, many of them related to and a result of aerospace’s presence. The Olympic Peninsula is developing a cluster of composites companies, some aerospace related, others connected to the marine business. The Columbia Gorge has a handful too, some again aerospace-related (thanks to the presence of Boeing-owned drone manufacturer Insitu), some a result of the sport of windsurfing. One of the best-known names in composites tooling and production, Janicki Industries, is located in rural Sedro-Woolley. What could well turn out to be the world’s largest plant for producing carbon fiber is already in operation in Moses Lake, with one expansion under construction and another to rapidly follow.

But Washington as a whole does have a real composites cluster, not one that has to be conjured up with colorful brochures and marketing pitches, the way some regions tried to depict themselves as software centers back when that was the economic-development rage.

That’s good, for several reasons. First is the immediate jobs effect and what’s coming as applications for advanced materials multiply and demand grows. Barring the immediate emergence of an alternative wonder material — and even miracle materials require time to gain acceptance — carbon fiber composites are poised to enjoy a long run of growth.

Next, all those companies making composite-based stuff, or the stuff to transform composite-based stuff into other stuff, also are producing a sizable cohort of workers with considerable experience and expertise in these materials. That’s a key component in attracting other companies to the region who want to tap into that knowledge base. It’s also crucial to the region’s health, because those workers are the ones likely to say “hey, let’s see what else we can do with this,” and then go out and do it, leading to new applications, products, companies and jobs.

None of this is exactly secret. Washington is not the only corner of the globe with a composites sector, as SAMPE illustrates, and everyone wants a piece of it, just as they aspired to share in software and biotech.

The state, and this little corner of it, has a lead in composites. Leads in industrial technology are never permanently assured, but with some thoughtful attention that lead can be maintained. An established position in these new materials and processes is a great competitive advantage to have. As technically complex as composites are, making something out of them is a lot easier than trying to build a regional industry cluster out of them — from scratch.

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at bill.virgin@yahoo.com.

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