Surrounded by machines worth hundreds of thousand of dollars, C&C machinist Todd Hardman programs a machine to mill a clevis at Cobalt Enterprises’ new building Wednesday in Lake Stevens. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Aerospace suppliers spending huge sums to boost capacity

LAKE STEVENS — The shop floor at Cobalt Enterprises in Lake Stevens is abuzz with activity as half-million-dollar machine tools turn metal blocks into airplane parts.

The company has expanded at breakneck speed in recent years — consistently growing for several years until 2016, when it doubled in size. The aerospace supplier expects to do about $25 million in sales this year.

With airplane makers cranking up production and military spending on the rise, there is plenty of work for Cobalt and other aerospace suppliers. To win it, suppliers are under intense pressure to keep costs down, quality high and deliveries on time.

Companies across Snohomish County are spending huge sums to add production capacity in recent years. Boeing has spent more than $1 billion to set up 777X production and assembly work at its Everett plant.

Over the past five years, Cobalt Enterprises has spent up to $15 million on getting bigger and better, co-owner Paul Clark said.

Last year, Cobalt opened a bigger machine shop in Lake Stevens, while keeping its Granite Falls location. Later in the year, it added an Everett plant when it took over Integrated Aerospace Manufacturing, which itself sprang from a 2015 merger of three local suppliers — Vector Industries, Polaris Machining and Quality Manufacturing.

Cobalt focuses on making relatively smaller batches of intricate pieces — a high-skill, small-run niche. “We do the work that others don’t want to take on or can’t do,” Clark said.

Commercial aerospace makes up about 60 percent of its work, military and space takes up another 30 percent and non-aerospace work is about 10 percent. It currently is making parts for a new football helmet designed to cut down on concussions, made by Seattle-based VICIS.

Cobalt typically makes parts for other, bigger aerospace suppliers. Its customers have wanted more finished parts, he said. Larger suppliers “want more packaged or kitted parts,” rather than pieces that have to be assembled.

Adding production capabilities and doing more assembly work has made Cobalt more competitive. Also, “by being larger, you might have a better chance to hold onto work that might shift otherwise,” Clark said.

Taking over Integrated Aerospace Machining gave Cobalt new capabilities, such as stretch forming aluminum — a production process that uses powerful machines to pull and push the metal into shapes.

In Lynnwood, Crane Aerospace & Electronics added industry-leading test and production operations for its fuel flow meters, which track the amount of fuel going to a jet engine. The meters already are in many of the major engines in production, including the CFM International LEAP engines used on Boeing’s 737 MAX, Airbus’ A320neo and Comac’s C919.

The expanded plant, which is expected to start production later this year, will ensure the company keeps pace with production schedules and that its products get on new engines being developed in the years ahead, said Dave Dickson, a marketing executive for Crane Aerospace & Electronics.

Like many aerospace investments in the region, Crane’s expansion was less about adding workers and more about increasing capabilities to win future work. The company still employs about 800 people in Lynnwood, about as many as it did when it broke ground on the expansion in late 2015.

Many suppliers are investing huge sums to get more efficient and competitive.

Esterline extensively overhauled its Korry Electronics plant near Paine Field in 2015 to create a factory based on the principles of lean manufacturing, an organizational approach that stresses flexibility, responsiveness and efficiency.

Last year, B/E Aerospace finished moving its operations around Snohomish County into a new factory that opened near Paine Field in 2013.

Zodiac Northwest Aerospace Technologies plans to move later this year from its home near downtown Everett to a new plant in an industrial park on the city’s east side along the Snohomish River.

The company confirmed the move, but would not comment on details.

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

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