Aircraft components supplier takes off in search of new markets
September 11, 2007
From its beginning in 1986 as a machine shop, Custom Tube Products has changed to a fabrication shop. Along the way it has adapted to the skilled worker shortage, mainly by trading in its manual processes for automation.
Mention the word airplane to most people, and they'll likely think of jet-powered superjumbo aircraft and the ongoing battle between the two titans, Boeing and Airbus.
Among Boeing's largest is the 747-400. It measures 232 feet long, has a wing span of 211 feet, has a range of 7,260 nautical miles, and can carry 524 passengers. Airbus' crown jewel, the A380, is somewhat larger—it is 239 ft. long, has a wing span of 262 ft., has a range of more than 8,000 nautical miles, and carries more than 550 passengers.
These planes serve just one part of the civil aviation industry, the so-called scheduled air transport sector. The other side is general aviation, which includes all other flights and is served by aircraft that hold just a handful of passengers. It's a larger market than you might think. While more than 650 million passengers travel on regularly scheduled U.S. flights annually, a respectable 166 million passengers in the U.S. use general aviation each year.
The general aviation sector has many more manufacturers than the two that dominate the superjumbo sector, and many are household names: Gulfstream, Embraer, Bombardier, Cessna, Piper, Dassault, Lockheed, Grumman American, Pacific, Transavia, Sky Arrow, Cirrus, and De Havilland.
A typical general aviation airplane is the Cessna Skyhawk 172R. Compared to the superjumbo jets built by Boeing and Airbus, it's tiny. It measures slightly more than 27 ft. long, its wing span is 36 ft., and its range is 680 nautical miles. It seats four people including the crew.
While the Skyhawk pales in comparison to the 747 or the A380, the general aviation market is still a lucrative niche for many metal fabricators. One such fabricator is Custom Tube Products Inc. (CTP), Edgewater, Fla. It produces quite a few aircraft parts, many made from tube—air intakes, exhaust systems, and fluid-carrying components.
But CTP wasn't always a tube fabricator.
The increased use of robots in small fabrication shops reflects two trends—the growing affordability of industrial robots and the growing shortage of skilled workers.
"My father started the company as a machine shop in 1986," said David Love, president of CTP. "The company was a general job shop—it did machining, milling, and lathe work."
Love's father wasn't just a machinist, though. He had an interesting niche.
"He had an A & P license and an IA license," said Love, referring to licenses for airframe and powerplant and inspection authorization, respectively. These allow the licensee to work on airframes and engines and to inspect them to determine their airworthiness.
His knowledge of aircraft and his skill as a machinist merged at the company.
"He saw a need to rebuild aircraft cylinders, which is a wear item that must be replaced or rebuilt every few thousand hours," Love said. "So he got into the cylinder rebuild business, and as the years went on, he branched out to other engine components, such as crankshafts and camshafts and many of the other internal parts."
The transition to fabricating started small, with just one component.
Pushing Push Rods. "With our aircraft engine rebuilding, we needed a source for aftermarket push rods. We contacted a company that supplied us with other engine parts and asked them to offer push rods as part of their product line. They didn't have a push rod supplier, and we had the capability to make them, so eventually they contracted us to be the manufacturer."
The order volume started small, fewer than 100 month. Even though it wasn't a big start, it was a start, and the company's first foray into tube. More changes were on the horizon.
"We were still heavily involved in repair at that time, and did just a little bit of manufacturing," Love said. "I worked in the shop all through high school, and really got serious about it when I was attending the local community college. Then I went off to the University of Florida, and when I came back, we really pushed manufacturing," Love said.
"Custom Tube Products now produces piston aircraft engine push rods for all of the major OEM and aftermarket companies."
On to Tube. "The same original customer later worked on developing a new engine and asked if we could supply a variety of tubes—intake tubes, fuel lines, oil lines, and so on—and we thought, 'Sure, why not?' so we went out and bought a tube bender and tooling for making all these parts. We didn't have any experience in tubing, so this is how we got our start."
It wasn't easy, though. "It was a lot of trial and error in the early days—especially because we were doing some difficult applications, like mandrel-bending thin-wall stainless tube with less than ideal grip lengths" he said.
"As we have grown, our focus has been the higher-volume aircraft engine parts, items that number four to 12 per engine," he said. "With a few exceptions, we are producing most of these components and are seeing our growth potential in this market becoming limited. There are many other tubular components, like low-volume weldments, but these are jobs that other shops have been doing for a long time, jobs for which they already have the tooling or fixtures and those costs have been amortized over decades, so it's hard to compete in that arena."
In an effort to boost output in the face of a skilled worker shortage, Custom Tube Products Inc. develops its own machines when necessary. To complement its robotic bending cell, it is developing an end forming machine that will be loaded and unloaded by an off-the-shelf robot.
Although the shop is small, employing just 15 people, Love knows that he has to think like a big manufacturer to thrive. First, he went looking for projects in new markets.
"We started looking for business for similar parts—small-diameter, higher-volume tube applications—outside the aviation market, and we're starting to get some business in other areas," he said.
CTP has few limitations in the processes it can perform because of the assortment of equipment it has—cutting with cold saws, chop saws, and shears; joining by welding and brazing; ram forming and rotary end forming for making chamfers, flanges, and flares; and machining with three CNC lathes, a holdover from its days as a machine shop.
These days Love isn't looking for just any fabricating work involving cutting, joining, end forming, and machining. He looks for applications that can be automated.
"In the beginning, when we had just two or three people, it was no problem, but as we have grown and our part count has gone up—now we're making about 50,000 assemblies a month— suddenly we can't find enough people who want to do this type of work or who have the skills or the attendance record we need.
"So we bought our first CNC tube bender on speculation. We didn't really have any business for it, but we saw it at FABTECH in 2005. It was a new product—a robotic tube bender that MiiC America had come out with. Shortly after installing it, we got our first job, a component that goes into a home medical device." The bender is busy now, and Love anticipates that other new business will keep the robotic bender busy all day, every day.
"Now we've been bitten by the robotic bug, so as we look for new projects and grow, we're mostly looking for applications that can be automated," he said. "We're looking for long-term projects. We're interested in setting up a dedicated manufacturing cell to run day in and day out."
"Our core product lines are made that way. Push rods, push rod housings, and other parts are made in dedicated cells."
For a small shop like this, dedicated setups aren't dedicated very long. Cells require frequent reprogramming and reconfiguring.
"We're not an OEM. We're a job shop," Love said. "Although our focus is high-volume, we continue to have a high mix of product families with many variations within these families and don't know from day to day what that mix will be."
"Flexibility is what drew us to this robotic bender," Love explained. "It uses a standard, off-the-shelf Motoman robot, so anything you can program that robot to do, you can program the bender to do. You can change the cell when you need to run a different part without a lot of headaches."
Quite a bit of automation equipment is custom-designed for a single product, but this isn't what a company such as CTP needs.
"A lot of automation equipment is designed for a single product line—products that OEMs manufacture in the hundreds of thousands per year," Love said. "The peripherals would be designed for one particular part. This type of equipment is not very useful to us because of our high product mix. We're now starting to build our own equipment and design manufacturing cells that handle the requirements of a job shop environment.
"On the robotic bender, nearly every part we process on it has a simple end form on one or both ends," Love said. "Currently we do the end forms on stand-alone machines, but we are moving away from that. We are close to completing a new double-ended end forming machine that will be integrated with our existing robotic bender. The goal is to have a continuous flow of raw material entering the cell and finished product exiting the cell.
"Sometimes you have to build your own equipment. If you buy a bender, what separates you from 20 other shops that have the same CNC tube bender? If both are running at the same speed, and both have an operator loading the feedstock, there is no way you can be much better than the competition.
"So far automation is the thing we have been most successful with. We are not the best with one-off jobs, and we don't have a thousand bend dies."
The general aviation market is much smaller now than it was in the late 1970s. Liability insurance premiums and other costs escalated over the decades, and the general aviation market nearly disappeared. The General Aviation Manufacturers Association estimates that domestic piston-driven aircraft shipments peaked in 1978 at 17,032 units. By 1994 they were down to a mere 499 units. The industry has grown slowly since then, and shipments climbed to 2,287 units in 2006. Many suppliers like Love are hoping the industry will continue to grow. Still, with approximately 90 percent of its business in general aviation, CTP is keen to broaden its customer base.
"In addition to aviation and medical, we do some small-arms work," Love said. "We are pursuing some consumer work, specifically in the lawn and garden area, and I see some potential with small diesel engines."
For a shop with capabilities as diverse as CTP's, the sky is the limit.
Custom Tube Products Inc., 317 Base Leg Drive, Edgewater, FL 32132, 386-426-0670, www.customtubeproducts.com