BANKING ON FIGHTER
By Ray Linker
Observer Staff Writer
ELGIN "These are tough times to be in the aerospace business," Jeffery G. Smith of Omnicut has no qualms admitting these days.
Things were slow last week at his plant in the Elgin Industrial Park, with not a machine nor computer operating.
"There might be some stuff militarily later on in the year and that ought to help business," said Smith, who began the company two years ago to manufacture precision metal parts for airplanes.
Then came Sept. 11, 2001.
"Things are really slow except for the occasional big push," Smith said. "Like last week. I put in 81 hours (mainly on the computer, where he generates the design for parts that have been ordered). Then it took the crew 2 shifts to turn out the parts."
Things could be looking up to a more stable routine, he said.
"Production for this summer looks pretty booked. To meet certain deadlines, we'll have to have some products ready in July. We're still bidding on some stuff and hope things will pick up."
He has put in bids on making four large "skins" 101 inches by 53 inches that go on the outside of planes. They will be to retrofit some Boeing 737s the military is experimenting with.
"If this works out, it could turn into our producing more," he said.
He has done other spare parts work, too. One recently was producing a single window frame for a 707. Doing only one makes it a labor-intensive project, considering all aspects of the project.
"It's not necessarily something we want to do a lot of, but it helps fill in the production gaps," Smith said.
"We have had some success in making various stiffners and a variety of parts for C-17s," he said. The stiffners, in varying lengths up to 3 feet long, help form the cargo planes' wings. They are shipped to a Boeing assembly plant in Long Beach, Calif. The big transport planes can carry tanks and helicopters to remote sites.
Milling of metal right now is slow in all manufacturing, Smith said. He has a salesman in Los Angles who reports that only 5 percent of the people he calls on in Southern California have any work.
Smith still believes the prognosis for his business is good. His best bet is to get in on the production of the Joint Strike Fighter plane, a superior plane with vertical landing capabilities, being developed for all branches of the military.
Lockheed Martin was awarded the main contract in October 2001 for the plane, designed to replace the Harrier (hover plane) and the F-18 and F-16 jets. It will meet the needs of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines for years to come. Work on the state-of-the-art military fighter should also keep manufacturers busy for decades.
The initial development contract was for $19 billion, but spending is expected to total more than $200 billion over the next 20 years, producing at least 3,000 supersonic jets, all of them radar-evading and many capable of short takeoffs as well as vertical landings.
"It's in the redesign stage now. And it's a matter of waiting to get out of that stage. In trials they discover things that can be improved, what items to eliminate to make the plane lighter and things like that," Smith said.
That redesign should be completed soon and bids will go out by late summer, Smith expects.
"It's critical that we get in on that. It's not that we're putting all our eggs in one basket, but that's the biggest basket out there that'll have any eggs in it this year," Smith said.
"And it would be an ongoing production. If we can get in on that, it would be a contract for the next 50 years."
If he can get any of that business, he would "definitely add people depending how quickly the main contractor would need the stuff what kind of timeline they would need. I would try not to add anybody we wouldn't be able to keep on long-term," Smith said.
Likely, he would add at least two more people to his production staff, now consisting of eight people.
Smith's company was recently awarded a $20,000 grant by the Northeast Oregon Alliance to help pay for installation of another piece of precision equipment to help produce parts. The $63,000 machine is called a coordinate measuring machine and will take $45,000 and 1 months to set up, he said.