Boeing workers learn about composites by practicing on snowboards

LYNNWOOD — The roar of a board saw drowns out chatter between Boeing workers as they piece together their latest projects.

Although several of them work on the Boeing Co.’s latest jet, the 787, they’re not building the Dreamliner in Damian Cianci’s class. Instead, Edmonds Community College instructor Cianci is teaching these Boeing workers how to make their own snowboards, using composite technology not so different from what Boeing uses with its 787.

“You can say that your snowboard has a centered base with gallium incorporated into it, carbon fiber-reinforced inserts and vibration-dampening coil — that would be on the big sales sticker, right?” Cianci said.

After several evenings’ worth of labor — cutting out the black base with scissors, attaching the board’s metal edge and sawing a thin layer of wood, most of the students are ready to see their boards come together.

The one-credit course is open to students at the community college, regardless of whether they’re employed by Boeing. But it’s attracted Boeing workers, both Machinists and engineers alike, perhaps because of its connections to the company’s new mostly composite jet.

Still, most of the students in the course that began in March seem just as interested in building their own boards as they are in learning the technology.

“When Damian told us about the class, about getting to make our own snowboards, we said, ‘We’re there,’” said Tommy and Nina Nguyen, engineers at Boeing.

The two have taken other courses with Cianci through EdCC’s Business Training Center. Cianci sees the composite snowboard class as a feeder for other courses. The college offers aerospace and manufacturing courses, composites classes, and computer-aided design certification — all of which are the types of skills that Boeing has advocated for more training in the region.

Cianci estimates that the students have about 45 minutes to piece together their snowboards. After that, the epoxy begins to harden.

“We have all these pieces that need to go together,” Cianci tells the students as they organize the layers that will become their boards. “We’ve got to be pretty quick about it.”

The snowboard consists of a black base that is coated with epoxy resin before a thin layer of fiberglass is set. Another coating of epoxy keeps the next layer, the wood, in place.

Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner comes together using some of the same techniques as the snowboard. In Frederickson, Boeing workers take layers of carbon fiber and resin to lay out the 787’s vertical fin. Machines automate the process, ensuring the layers are flat and straight.

Like the snowboards made by Edmonds Community College students, the fin is “baked,” or heated in large ovens, to strengthen and harden the layers of resin and fibers. The company’s partners also layer fiber and resin into huge 787 structures, including the fuselage.

Cianci’s students congregate around a couple of workstations, throwing their collective effort into producing the first few boards. Chris Perisho and David Shen employ different strategies in applying and layering the epoxy. A Boeing engineer, Shen smears on an abundance of the gooey gluelike substance, working the excess off the edge. Machinist Perisho carefully works the epoxy up and down the board in a precise, almost automatic manner.

Despite his precise movements, Perisho spills a few drops of excess epoxy as he scoops it into a spare container.

“You epoxied your pants,” Tommy Nguyen says, laughing.

Besides showing off varying work styles, the students also add a bit of personality to their boards. They’ve chosen pictures or patterns to display on each. Tommy Nguyen happily holds up a thin layer of cotton fabric with dollar bills printed across it. Sassy women in little black dresses line Nina Nguyen’s bright pink fabric.

As he slathers another coat of epoxy over the fiberglass, Perisho notices the heat coming off the epoxy resin.

“You can really feel it as it starts to harden up,” he said.

Next, the boards are put in vacuum bags and loaded into an oven to set, just as Boeing cures its composite 787 fin.

Cianci isn’t necessarily interested in whether the class benefits Boeing. But he wants students to gain a thirst for developing other technical skills — from designing a skateboard or fly rod on the computer to seeing it through the build process.

“There’s nothing stopping them from making anything they want,” he said.

Composite materials

The Boeing Co.’s 787, which will get its first test flight soon, is the first commercial jet with a majority of pieces made with composite materials.

Composites are sort of an advanced form of fiberglass that are exceptionally light and strong, which make them good for use in jet aircraft.

Boeing expects them to be the future of aviation.

Economic development officials hope composites will establish a new industry in Snohomish County and the Northwest.

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