Bruce Alspach was appointed president of Dow-United Technologies Composite Products Inc. in late 1996. More than 90% of the company's business is in the aerospace industry. Since taking over as president, he has shifted the company's focus from technology and engineering to service. Before joining Dow-UT, Alspach was vice president and general manager of the Aerospace Division of Trimble Navigation Ltd. in Austin, TX. He has also held senior management positions at BF Goodrich Aerospace and the General Electric Co. He is a graduate of Union College in Schenectady, NY.
When it comes to high-precision composite parts used primarily in the aerospace industry, successful engineers focus on the total value--not just cost.
Design News: Your company has a particular expertise in advanced resin transfer molding. What are some of its specific advantages?
Alspach: Advanced resin transfer molding has many advantages. This process yields a high-fidelity piece with all of the strength of a titanium part, but is much lighter in weight. We achieve extremely close dimensional tolerances. I liken the finished piece to a casting or forging that requires very little machining. This means we can make very complicated parts. Our customers are using these parts in complex satellite structures, aircraft structures, and jet engines, to name a few examples.
Q: Approximately 90% of your customers are in the aerospace industry. With the emphasis on low weight and high strength that dominates so many designs today, do you see market opportunities emerging in other industries?
A: What we are achieving in terms of quality levels and design parameters probably isn't justified in most non-aerospace businesses today. For now, our company has made a conscious choice to focus on the aerospace industry, but that isn't to say that other applications won't develop down the road.
Q: What aspects or requirements of a design would be an indication that the design engineer should seriously consider a part fabricated using the advanced RTM process?
A: If you're currently working with steel or aluminum, parts fabricated with our advanced RTM process are not likely to be cost competitive. But advanced RTM is a good alternative to consider for many parts currently made of cast or forged titanium. Our process may also be an effective alternative for replacing an assembly with a single molded part.
Q: When it comes to the selection of materials and processing methods, do you think engineers put too much emphasis on the upfront purchase price?
A: That's an interesting question. Design engineers really should focus on the ultimate value of that part--instead of the immediate cost. Having said that, everything is relative. For example, in every design there is a trade-off for weight. In one application, it may be cost effective for weight to be traded-off for $40 an ounce. In another application it might be traded-off for $10,000 an ounce. Arriving at those value determinations is often what drives engineers to the more esoteric solutions.
Q: Which are typically more costly....
A: Well, I think good design engineers have to look at a lot more than just the cost of the part. They need to look at the total installed cost, including the downstream costs associated with assembly, custom fitting, and multiple procurements. Advanced RTM typically results in a significant reduction in those costs. It may be difficult to put a dollar figure on them, but these costs are very real.
And it's not always a case of comparing apples to apples. We have a process that allows us to make a single composite part that replaces perhaps five, six, or more different parts made by other means. When you factor in the additional costs to assemble a box of these components, a single molded part might be a real bargain.
Q: At what point in the design should an engineer get the parts fabricator involved?
A: As early as possible! The best of all worlds is to get together in the concept stage, when the fabricator can help to influence the design from the start. Unfortunately, all too often we don't get involved until the retrofit stage, when a customer comes to us and says, "I have a weight problem." Obviously, it's more difficult to address at that stage.
Q: What kinds of developments can we expect to see in the future?
A: I think we can expect some important advances with some of our materials research, which ultimately will allow us to fabricate parts which are stronger and can be used at higher temperatures. We also are refining our process to allow us to use a broader spectrum of materials and fabricate a wider range of parts.