Mukilteo company makes the tools that build the world’s planes

By Dan Catchpole Herald Writer

MUKILTEO — At the end of one of the big shop buildings at Electroimpact’s campus there is a massive blue-and-white machine for riveting aircraft-fuselage panels. The device will soon be disassembled and shipped to China, where it will be put back together.

It spins essentially like a lathe. Curved aircraft body panels are held in place on two arms that stretch between the machine’s two towers. The arms rotate the panels while the machine rivets them together.

The machine is massive — two stories tall, about 80 feet long and made of tons of metal, but its task is very focused: A quarter-inch drill bit and riveter methodically attach the body panels with the precision and reliability required in aerospace manufacturing.

The machine does what’s called squeeze riveting, and demand for the technology has increased dramatically in recent years, said Peter Zieve, CEO and founder of Electroimpact.

“People are buying more and more rivet machines, so us dinosaur rivet guys like me aren’t in the dust bin,” said Zieve, 59, who founded the company in 1986 after earning a doctorate in mechanical engineering from the University of Washington. “It’s going bigger and faster than ever before.”

Composite-material manufacturing machines, another Electroimpact specialty, are still only about 10 percent of the company’s sales of about $150 million a year.

That could increase if Electroimpact wins a bid to make systems for fabricating the composite-material wings of the Boeing 777X, which will happen a couple miles away at the aerospace giant’s Everett facility at Paine Field.

The company is in talks with Boeing about how to make the wings, but that doesn’t guarantee it will get the work, said Kyle Jeffries, a project engineer with Electroimpact.

Boeing actually pushed Electroimpact into composites in 2004 when the Chicago-based company asked it to help design a machine that could lay carbon-fiber composite material faster than the current technology, he said.

The machine was for Boeing’s largely composite 787.

“They didn’t say, ‘Can you make it two or three times faster.’ They said, ‘We need it 10 to 20 times faster,’” Jeffries said.

The collaboration was a success, and the result forced other machine and tooling makers to innovate. Electroimpact’s competitors are catching up, though.

“Eventually we’ll lose our market edge,” Jeffries said. “What are we going to do to protect ourselves? We’re going to design the next cool thing before the other guys.”

Electroimpact is a mechanical engineer’s paradise. More than two-thirds of its roughly 600 employees are engineers, and they are given a lot of authority to deliver on projects. There’s no purchasing department or micro-managers looking over shoulders.

“We don’t have budgets” for specific projects, he said. “We spend as much money as it takes to deliver.”

Like most of the company’s engineers, Jeffries, 41, was hired straight out of college and is passionate about his work.

“We’re basically kids playing with dangerous toys,” he said.

Electroimpact’s customers include the major commercial jet makers in the world: Airbus, Boeing, Embraer and Bombardier. The company has been expanding in recent years into China, where customers include Comac, which is trying to break into the narrow-body jetliner market.

Other projects include systems for use in making wings for the Airbus A350xwb and Boeing’s 737. Electroimpact also is working on a military project for Embraer, which is likely the KC-390, a military transport aircraft.

This year the Pacific Northwest Aerospace Alliance named Electroimpact the Aerospace Company of the Year.

Its reputation rests on two things, Jeffries said. “We solve hard problems, and we refuse to fail.”

The company charges a premium for that. Sometimes potential customers go with the lowest bid, and when that happens, Electroimpact always answers the phone when those same customers call back, saying the system they chose didn’t delivered as expected.

“They call us because we’re a guarantee,” Jeffries said.

Dan Catchpole: 425-339-3454; dcatchpole@heraldnet.com.