Mukilteo factory is the jet builders’ builder

By Michelle Dunlop Herald Writer

At first glance, you might mistake the inside of Electroimpact for an aircraft assembly factory like the Boeing Co.’s.

It’s the massive tools — ones used for putting together an aircraft wing or for laying carbon fiber — that trigger the image. What’s missing: aircraft parts.

Inside the Mukilteo facility, the tools are being manufactured, not the airplanes. It’s up to Electroimpact to make the process of building an airplane faster, smoother and more precise.

“Each aircraft has its own unique solution,” said Rob Flynn, an engineer at Electroimpact.

“It’s all custom,” he added.

In fact, Electroimpact has almost no “standard product” line to speak of. The closest product it has to a consistent, duplicated part is its Flextrack drill, which was originally designed by Boeing engineer Jim Buttrick. Boeing has given Electroimpact approval to manufacture and to distribute the drill.

The drill line and the robotic systems that Electroimpact offers are a lower-cost, more flexible way for an aerospace company to get started building and assembling aircraft parts. But there’s a trade-off in precision — though the company’s newer robotic systems can be maneuvered as tightly as the width of a human hair.

Despite the recent downturn in air traffic, Electroimpact is doing well. The company’s success is more closely tied with the development of new aircraft or variants or the establishment of new production line. For example, in June, Electroimpact received a contract with Boeing Charleston for flextrack drilling machines and post-mill machines for Boeing’s second 787 assembly line in South Carolina.

Electroimpact is also working on tooling for Airbus’ A350 outer wing box as well as on production support for Bombardier’s new CSeries commercial aircraft.

With both Boeing and Airbus considering new single-aisle aircraft and Boeing taking a look at its 777, Electroimpact has tremendous new business potential.

As the world’s top two jetmakers begin to design more composite material into their airplanes, Electroimpact also is positioned to grow into that market.

When Boeing began work on its 787 Dreamliner, the company helped fund some of Electroimpact’s research in automating the carbon fiber lay-up process, Flynn said.

Today, at the back of Electroimpact’s factory is the company’s prototype for an automated fiber placement machine. Boeing 787 supplier Spirit AeroSystems uses one for the nose section that it makes on the Dreamliner. Spirit also ordered one for its work on the A350.

Electroimpact’s fiber placement system is built for thinner-width fiber. Although it can place up to 1,800 inches per minute, its real advantage is how fast it accelerates, Flynn said.

“You don’t go very fast for very long,” he said.

One of Electroimpact’s largest projects is the work the company has done for Airbus’ A380 wing production. In fact, the company has 60 engineers stationed in Europe, mostly to meet Airbus’ needs and keep up with maintenance on the products that Electroimpact has supplied.

While many Puget Sound-area aerospace companies historically tied their successes to Boeing’s, Electroimpact does more work for Airbus than it does for Boeing, despite its proximity to the latter.

With 300 engineering employees in the Puget Sound region, the company also brings in 15 to 30 interns each summer. Flynn has a lot of success in recruiting engineering students from Seattle University, less so from University of Washington. Some of the interns land full-time positions at Electroimpact when they graduate.

“They make a real contribution” even during their internships, Flynn said.