PLANE-PARTS BUILDER UP AND ROLLING

May 01, 2002 11:00 pm
UP AND RUNNING: Daniel Austin of La Grande mans one of the five-axis, 55,000-pound machines used at the Omnicut building in the Elgin Industrial Park to cut airplane parts from aluminum and steel. (The Observer/LAURA MACKIE-HANCOCK).
UP AND RUNNING: Daniel Austin of La Grande mans one of the five-axis, 55,000-pound machines used at the Omnicut building in the Elgin Industrial Park to cut airplane parts from aluminum and steel. (The Observer/LAURA MACKIE-HANCOCK).

By Ray Linker

Observer Staff Writer

ELGIN — Things are taking flight — if slowly — at the Omnicut aircraft parts manufacturing company in the Elgin Industrial Park, said owner Jeff Smith.

He has hired eight employees, including one part-timer, and contracts are coming in.

While there is a certain confidentiality involved, due to agreements with his clients, in just what some of the airplane parts are, a tour of the huge blue building near the railroad track at the rear of the industrial park reveals his inventory of materials is building, various tooled parts have been produced, and other parts are in the process of being assembled.

One fairly generic part used in a lot of planes is a "stiffener," which helps hold the wings together.

"We're making stiffeners for the C-17 transport plane and have purchase orders stretching into next year," Smith said of the small metal part about three feet long. The parts, of different lengths, go to a Boeing plant in Long Beach, Calif., where the planes are assembled.

"They have just gotten an order for 100 of the C-17 planes, which will take them a decade or so to produce," Smith said.

The plane, designed in the late 1980s, can carry tanks, entire helicopters and can land and take off in a short space, Smith said. Thus they could be used, for example, to take equipment from Pakistan to Afghanistan after the much larger C-5 planes, which require a longer runway, make the initial, longer trip to bring the equipment to the general area.

Among Smith's crew are the designers, who use computers to generate the specifications of the project and then feed the information to the huge machines that turn out the parts.

"It seems like that everything we do involves reinventing the wheel," Smith said. "There's quite a bit of tooling to be done."

Only one of the 55,000-pound machines, manufactured by a company called Cincinnati using the brand name Milacron, is operational at the moment, but the other should be operational in the near future, he said.

"We would like to have more orders, but we're not in a position right now to turn them out successfully in the tight time frame they would require," Smith said.

"Within the next month, we expect to have things more in place to have a better flow of things through here," he said.

"We're bidding now on some stuff for Boeing," he said.

Rick Gentry is his southern California representative and he was in the plant this week learning how it operates. He sees Lockheed, Northrop-Grumman and Airbus as potential clients for the Elgin firm. He said the company could also serve other suppliers who produce parts for the major aerospace firms.

The two major machines used in the operation here "are virtually identical," Smith said. but the larger one, called a hydrotel, can more easily cut bigger parts. Both are five-axis machines, indicating the number of different cuts they can make through steel or aluminum.

To be a first-tier supplier for such firms as Boeing, Omnicut has to meet "a host of inspection requirements," Smith said. "We're called and ISO 9002 compliance company" to meet those standards, he said. "Our computer system sets us apart from other companies."

Some of his employees do only quality assurance work, he said.

A Unigraph 3-D CAD system programs the parts and a Vericut system verifies what's going to happen on the machine.

Smith was mum on exactly how many orders he has received so far and said, "I'm not sure how sales will pick up. The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks sent the aircraft industry reeling. And it impacted Boeing more deeply than they want to admit."

Having committed to the operation in Elgin more than a year ago, Smith is plunging ahead.