On the Ball at Beaver Aerospace
Move toward electromechanical actuator systems is just one trend benefiting innovative aerospace and defense supplier
By Sarah A. Webster
Editor in Chief
Beaver Aerospace & Defense Inc. (Livonia, MI), maker of precision ballscrews, ball splines and complete electromechanical actuation systems, demonstrates the importance of investing in new machines—not just for current production, but as a business strategy to win new orders.
A supplier to the commercial and military aerospace and defense industry, Beaver is an FAA-certified repair station, FAA-Approved Parts & Components supplier and award-winning supplier to high-caliber OEMs. Among its many customers: Boeing, the US Air Force, Parker Aerospace, Moog, Northrop Grumman, and Lockheed Martin.
Beaver-designed and manufactured parts and systems are installed on some of the most advanced aircraft, missiles and mission-critical space exploration systems in the world. Many of those products also feature the latest in motion control technology.
“A lot of companies make ballscrews. We create customized ballscrews,” said Benjamin Kearns, general manager at Beaver and a former manufacturing engineer at Boeing. “We create customized solutions.”
To produce those critical precision parts at a cost-effective price and attract new business, Beaver has a robust strategic planning process that involves a two-year and a five-year plan. The two-year plan is heavily focused on operations. The five-year plan has an eye on the company’s long-term competitiveness, which includes new machinery.
“Buying the right machines has been critical to getting new business,” Kearns said.
Evaluating the Total Value of a New Machine
As part of its five-year plan, Beaver completes a comprehensive evaluation of the age and condition of existing machinery, capacity utilization of that machinery, as well as a detailed evaluation of new machinery available on the market and how it might enhance competitiveness.
Beaver takes a holistic view of investing in new machines. It doesn’t just look at return on investment, but explores how attractive new machines make them to customers in securing new business, as well as potentially new skilled employees, who are in short supply.
“New machines also help us attract talent,” Kearns noted. “If you’re trying to attract talent, they’d rather work on a new machine.”
Beaver regularly invests a healthy amount of its revenue in R&D and equipment upgrades.
Kearns said Beaver’s dedication to keeping its machinery new has forced it to re-evaluate some of the ways it measures cost in its system. For example, some newer machines actually use higher amounts of energy than the machines they replaced. However, they produce parts faster so they do not require as much total energy to machine a part. That has forced Beaver to create new assessment formulas that take into account the total cost of making each part and not just looking at energy consumption as a singular measurement.
Beaver has about 110 employees, one-fourth of which are engineers. About 40, however, are machinists. Since 2011, when Beaver felt the brunt of the Great Recession, because of the lag time in orders, sales have been growing at a healthy clip. It now has about $25 million in revenue.
While Kearns credits a variety of factors for that growth, such as the company’s experience, excellent supplier record and skilled team, he said strategic investments in the right machines has certainly played a role.
Beaver also has benefited from a general move away from hydraulic systems, which require frequent maintenance since they operate on hydraulic fluid (and its ever-present risk of leakage and contamination). By contrast, electromechanical actuator systems are less expensive to produce, more reliable, and because they don’t require hydraulic fluid, they are considerably more environmentally friendly.
For example, Beaver developed an actuator system, which replaced a hydraulic system, that elevates a military radar system and can produce 40,000 lbs. of force (177.9 kN). The lift on both sides of the system must be synchronized during the raising and lowering functions. This system allows the customer to reduce their upfront costs and offer their customers better reliability.
“A lot of the cost reduction is just in the simplicity of the system,” Kearns said. “Ballscrews are also highly efficient in their use of power.”
During a visit to their facilities in November, Beaver was in the process of rearranging its production floor to accommodate new equipment and optimize its product flow.
Among the new incoming machines: a state-of-the-art OD cylindrical grinder, five-axis CNC lathes and a CNC ID ball thread grinder. It also has invested in upgrading a Zeiss CMM and new technology to improve machining of stainless steel.
“Stainless steel is now the material of choice for ballscrews for most new programs,” explained Lee Pichan, director of sales at Beaver. “Due to environmental concerns, companies are looking for chrome-plating alternatives in the aerospace industry.”
Based on shifting demands, Beaver also continues to develop its expertise in new and emerging materials such as titanium.
Beaver, which was founded in 1952, has a healthy 100,000 ft2 (9290 m2) of space. But that space reflects how the company has grown over the years, so it is spread out over three facilities located close to one another in an industrial row in suburban Livonia. Beaver also has access to production space through its parent company, Phillips Service Industries (PSI; Livonia, MI), which has a total of 500,000 ft2 (46,450 m2) available in other nearby facilities.
Eventually, Kearns said, Beaver is exploring getting all of its operations under one roof in its new five-year plan.
Beaver is currently operating at about 90% capacity with one shift running six days a week, and is in the process of adding a second shift.
Pride in Innovation
Beaver prides itself on being creative, and one of its most creative solutions for the government ended up doubling the size of the company and helping to support the firm through the Great Recession.
After the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the government did a detailed assessment of its vulnerabilities and concluded that there was a high risk with certain missile silo doors, which often took 30 minutes to secure after maintenance activities. The government asked its trusted suppliers to come up with a solution that would leave the 17,000 lb (7711 kg) door open for only 15 seconds, without increasing the available power. The government also asked for a method of closing the door with no power in emergency situations. In order to complete lift operations with no power, Beaver designed a system using a carbon flywheel that captured the kinetic energy and stored it until needed.
Ultimately, PSI purchased the assets of the company that produced the flywheel and moved them to Michigan. The company now operates as PowerThru and PSI owns the technology.
“We came up with a no-power lift. Everything worked perfectly on it,” said Scott Borchers, Beaver's engineering director. “The key was the flywheel system.”
Winning that contract remains a big source of pride within Beaver, as it fundamentally strengthened the company’s business.
“We’re always innovating,” Kearns said.
A key strength lies in Beaver's engineering team, which has been assembled for specific skills related to ballscrews and electromechanical actuator systems. “Most of our engineers are on the actuator side, which is more complex,” Kearns said.
As part of its mechanical engineering operations, Beaver routinely uses 3D modeling and analysis, including finite element analysis. Although Beaver still uses 2D drawings, which can be seen on desks around its facilities, it sees a future where 3D virtual images are king. Therefore, Beaver is planning to move more substantially toward a tablet-based culture.
The team also has substantial electrical engineering experience, and it designs and analyzes its own circuit boards. And, of course, Beaver’s production team is highly skilled in CAD/CAM and a full range of metalworking and other manufacturing processes, such as milling, turning, whirling, grinding and more.
In addition to large CMMs and other standard metrology tools, Beaver routinely builds its own testing equipment and procedures for the specialized items it builds. For their ballscrew products, Beaver tests not just for part accuracy, but for efficiency and endurance, among other factors. Most of its products are also tested for different weather environments as well. (See a video about Beaver’s testing of an electromechanical actuator that controls a plane’s landing gear at http://tinyurl.com/EMAtesting.)
“We do a lot of testing and verification,” Borchers said.
Beaver is proud of the fact that many workers have been with the company for decades, and there are a lot of family members in the company.
“It says a lot when someone wants to bring their son or brother in,” Kearns said.
Still, Beaver struggles to find quality workers just like all manufacturers. “It’s national and it’s real,” Kearns said of the workforce shortage. To counteract the difficulty in finding workers, Beaver has developed an intern program through local agencies and is now developing its own talent.
Beaver also is fully dedicated to a lean culture. All employees are trained in what it calls “Lean 101,” the company hosts monthly 5S events or kaizens, and continuous improvement is built into the company’s robust strategic planning process. ME
This article was first published in the February 2014 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine. Click here for the PDF.
Published Date : 2/1/2014