How Electroimpact’s unconventional founder created an aerospace giant

MUKILTEO — In 1983, Peter Zieve didn’t even know what a rivet looked like.

Three years later, he founded a company, Electroimpact, to sell riveting machines to aerospace companies.

It’s been a spectacular success.

Electroimpact has grown into a heavyweight in the aerospace industry, employing more than 620 people while operating on five continents.

The company sells dozens of machines to Boeing, Airbus and other aerospace manufacturers throughout the world. The machines do everything from driving old-fashioned rivets into aluminum on assembly lines to manufacturing parts by laying up advanced composite materials.

And this has been a particularly good year for Electroimpact.

In January, the Pacific Northwest Aerospace Alliance named the business its aerospace company of the year. In October, Electroimpact won a coveted contract from Boeing to develop automated fiber placement machines for building 777X wings.

Sales continue to grow so much that Electroimpact plans to expand in the near future.

It all started with Zieve, 60, who from the beginning envisioned his company as “a haven for engineers.”

Electroimpact is atypical of many engineering and manufacturing organizations, which are often characterized by huge support staffs, rigid hierarchical structures, senior managers isolated inside plush offices, and cubicle-dwelling engineers (think Dilbert).

At Electroimpact, only a handful of employees provide administrative support, and no one has an office, including Zieve.

On a November day, he didn’t look like most CEOs either, instead resembling more of an absent-minded professor — wearing socks but no shoes, cargo pants and a gray T-shirt with “Peter Zieve” embroidered on the right chest and “Electroimpact” on the left.

Zieve’s path to world-class aerospace entrepreneur was propelled by electromagnetics, a field normally associated with systems such as radios, radars, cellphones, and antennas, not rivets.

His early desire was to apply electrical engineering technology to environmental problems, an interest sparked during high school in his native Wisconsin when he helped his mother with a project on air pollution control.

During his sophomore year as an electrical engineering major at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he heard about a professor, James R. Melcher, who was researching ways to apply electromagnetics to new areas.

Zieve found Melcher’s phone number in a faculty directory and dialed, expecting the call to be answered by an assistant or a secretary. He was shocked when the famous professor answered himself, but instead of telling Zieve to go away, Melcher commanded, “Come here now.”

Thus began a mentorship that continued through Zieve’s two MIT master’s degrees, one in electrical engineering and one in environmental engineering.

In 1977, Zieve helped to found EFB Inc., a Boston company dedicated to applying a technology called “Electrified Filter Bed” to reduce pollution particles in the atmosphere.

Zieve had lost interest in air pollution control by 1983, so he sold his share of the business to his two partners and headed to Seattle and the University of Washington to work on a doctorate in mechanical engineering.

One day, as Zieve sat at his desk, Georg Mauer, then a UW assistant professor, dropped by to talk about rivets.

Despite the fact that Boeing uses the tiny metal cylinders by the millions to assemble airplanes, until then, Zieve said, “I had never even heard of a rivet.”

Using a chalkboard behind Zieve’s desk, Mauer sketched diagrams of rivets and explained how they work: drill holes in two or more pieces of sheet metal, slip a rivet into the holes (a head on one side of the rivet keeps it from falling out) and then squeeze the rivet until the non-head side deforms so it extends over the holes to hold the parts together.

Mauer also explained that researchers were developing electromagnetic processes to improve traditional mechanical processes for squeezing the rivets.

Zieve, electrified, said, “By the end of the discussion, I knew I wanted to work on this for the rest of my life.”

For his Ph.D. work, Zieve invented a technology called “low voltage electromagnetic riveting.” Compared to purely mechanical processes, the new technology promised to be quieter, more suitable for riveting in small places, require lower skill levels, and reduce damage to aircraft skins during manufacturing.

After graduating in 1986, Zieve established Electroimpact, with the goal to commercialize the technology. At first, he was the only employee and he figured out by himself how to build the first low voltage electromagnetic riveter, which was small enough to transport in a pickup.

After selling the first machine to Northrop Grumman in Pico Rivera, California, the company grew slowly, selling a drilling machine to Boeing and then a computer numerical control machine to Textron Aerostructures in Nashville.

Initially, the company was housed in what looked like an oversized garage on Blakely Street near the UW in Seattle. Zieve said the location was “paradise” — he could run on the Burke-Gilman trail and he was minutes away from his second job as a UW professor.

By 1993, Electroimpact had grown to the point that Zieve said a Boeing vice president recommended they move to a larger facility more suited to manufacturing aerospace equipment.

Wanting to avoid a commute to the Eastside, Zieve looked further north in Mukilteo and found a good facility near Paine Field. He said, “It was the end of paradise, but the new building really allowed us to grow.” The company now resides in the Electroimpact campus of six buildings on Chennault Beach Road.

Mauer, now a professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, wasn’t surprised that Electroimpact succeeded. He said, “What distinguishes Peter is creativity and a willingness to work outside the box. He’s not bound by customs and tradition. And his quirky personality gives him a unique perspective.”

The structure at Electroimpact is very flat.

Zieve said that, at most, there is one layer between every engineer in the company and him. He personally hires every employee in the U.S., and he speaks to all overseas hires on the phone before a final decision is made. The international component of the company is primarily in the U.K.; the relatively independent operation employs about 100 people and is dedicated to supporting Airbus assembly in the U.K.

Electroimpact’s technology and product offerings have grown well beyond the original riveting and drilling machines used for assembly, and now include manufacturing machines that can build entire aircraft sections made from composite materials. The company also offers a line of articulated robots.

The Mukilteo engineers are organized into teams that sit together in areas designated by signs with titles like “Squeeze” (for rivets) and “AFP” (for automated fiber placement) to reflect the type of equipment they work on.

Zieve’s desk in the “Squeeze” section looks identical to the other desks on the engineering floor, although it is located by a window. The desk next to his is occupied by his son, Michael Zieve, who also has B.S and M.S. degrees in electrical engineering from MIT.

All assembly of Electroimpact machines is done on site using mostly parts ordered from other manufacturers; they make only about 15 percent of their own parts.

Zieve also said his company doesn’t have to worry about certifying their machines with the Federal Aviation Administration or their overseas counterparts — that is the responsibility of the aerospace manufacturers who use the equipment. He said the manufacturers sometimes tell him to freeze a particular machine configuration because it has been “FAA certified,” but otherwise Electroimpact is free to follow every engineer’s dream — tinkering endlessly with their design to make it better.

For the future, Zieve said he plans to stay within the aerospace manufacturing and assembly business

“An airplane is so complicated that you can never really understand all of it,” Zieve said. As for slow growth, manufacturing technology doesn’t change as rapidly as software, which often requires lead times of less than two years from idea to implementation.

Zieve said that timeline boggles his mind — aircraft manufacturers are much more patient. And, although in Electroimpact’s early days, Zieve had to convince manufacturers to buy his products, these days the manufacturers are more likely to approach Zieve to ask him to develop a new piece of equipment.

Whatever Zieve is doing at Electroimpact, it seems to be working. The company continues to hire new engineers and is expected to grow to around 750 employees in the near term.

Orders continue to pour in from aerospace manufacturers around the world and Zieve recently opened a new office in China.

And it all started with someone who had never heard of a rivet.

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