December 2004/January 2005 
Volume 03, Issue 8 
Special Features

Suppliers on board

High-tech firms are becoming collaborators on programs


Kent SherwoodDoing the impossible is one of the things Boeing does best, asserts a commercial that has aired on major U.S. television networks. But a 30-second TV spot can't begin to tell the story of the high-tech suppliers Boeing relies on to help the company develop cutting-edge technologies. Or of the culture of risk-sharing and collaborating that is quickly overtaking the traditional prime contractor-supplier relationship.

"We are not striving for self-sufficiency," Harry Stonecipher, Boeing president and CEO, said at Boeing's 2004 Global Supplier Conference. "On the contrary, our goal is to become a lean global enterprise that sticks to doing a few things exceptionally well and is adept at drawing upon the strengths, and tapping into the best thinking and practices, of other companies across the United States and around the world."

Behind almost every significant high-tech development project at Boeing are one or more dedicated suppliers that have applied their proprietary expertise and invested their own resources to achieve mutual, long-term benefits.

Sometimes these supplier partners are large, diverse organizations as big as or bigger than Boeing. Often they are small specialty firms, nimble organizations whose unfettered creativity is continuously inspired to reach breakthrough solutions to thorny technical challenges. They don't just think outside the box. They avoid building the box in the first place.

It takes fully engaged suppliers willing to invest in developing technologies to ensure competitive success. And it takes committed, focused Boeing engineers and supplier managers to help them understand and achieve our customers' requirements.

This is a story about one of these companies.


Phantom Works engineer Ted Ralston discovered Foam Matrix Inc., a surfboard manufacturer, when he needed to recreate ancient stone statues for a "Nova" documentary on PBS.

Ralston, director of Phantom Works Integrated Joint Programs, worked on the episode in 1997 while helping the School of Archeology at the University of California-Los Angeles create a field experiment program focused on Easter Island's stone images, or moai. He needed fiberglass molds to form concrete replicas of the 14-ton statues.

"Foam Matrix stepped up to the challenge, combining its creative use of fiberglass with its Polynesian cultural knowledge," said Ralston. The low-cost, durable molds were a key to the success of the program.

"The design creativity, responsiveness, and technical capability of Foam Matrix were impressive," Ralston said. "I kept thinking, there's something here that looks like it could help our business, and it's really low cost."

Little did he know then the former sports equipment manufacturer would become one of Boeing's more innovative suppliers.

The tiny (eight employees) Inglewood, Calif., supplier produces cost-effective airfoils and control surfaces for unmanned aerial vehicles, using the proprietary composite structural core manufacturing technology developed in the 1960s by company founder and President Kent Sherwood for making surfboards. It also makes wind turbine blades, access panels, aircraft body components, and other contoured structures for aerospace and marine applications.

"Innovation is the main ingredient in everything we do," said the semi-retired Sherwood, a Hawaiian native who still surfs regularly. "Fins and wings are basically surfboards, but they require much higher standards of quality control."

Foam Matrix won a contract to build the wings and control surfaces for Boeing's X-45A joint unmanned combat air vehicle demonstrators in part through its willingness to invest in the project.

"We made the decision to build a production-representative prototype on our nickel," said Foam Matrix Vice President Mike Kramer. "We put a major investment into the program."

The prototype met the requirements and was radically less expensive than a traditional built-up wing with hundreds of individual parts.

"The low cost of production while meeting all of our requirements is what won the program," Ralston said.

Applying its patented manufacturing system, Foam Matrix molds ribs, stringers, electrical conduit, fuel lines, structural hard points, sensors and other parts into final shape as a single, one-piece, foam-core unit.

The molded unit is cured, wrapped in composite fabric and returned to the mold for resin injection. After a final cure, it is ready for assembly on the aircraft as a one-piece, integral structure.

The benefits include less weight, fewer parts, shorter production time, easy reproducibility and dramatically reduced costs.

Foam Matrix uses the same process to make engine strakes for the Boeing C-17 Globemaster III and stators for the A160 Hummingbird, an experimental long-range, high-endurance helicopter unmanned air vehicle.

Boeing is developing the Joint Unmanned Combat Air System under contract to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the U.S. Air Force.

The C-17 strakes are shark-like fins that extend from the shoulders of each engine nacelle to improve the military airlifter's aerodynamics. Boeing switched to Foam Matrix foam-core strakes because they cost one-tenth as much to produce as the original honeycomb-core strakes.

Foam Matrix won a Phantom Works Supplier Innovation Award in 2002 for finding a new use for existing technology. In October, Foam Matrix also won the prestigious Technology Innovation Award from Aviation Week & Space Technologymagazine.

Indeed, developing, acquiring, applying and protecting innovative technologies and processes is key to maintaining aerospace leadership. And what Boeing and its suppliers achieve today is underwriting tomorrow's successes.

Here are some other high-tech firms that are suppliers to Boeing.

Aitech Space Systems

Aitech Space Systems, a small business in Chatsworth, Calif., that makes high-end computing hardware for space applications, is "a subcontract manager's dream," said John Baber, Phantom Works procurement agent and subcontract administrator.

Despite its small size (fewer than two dozen employees), it is the only company in the world offering IBM 750FX processing cards in space-qualified computers. Phantom Works needed the powerful processor for Orbital Express, a program designed to demonstrate the feasibility of servicing satellites while they are in orbit.

Aitech's involvement was much more in character with that of risk-sharing partner than a typical supplier. Initially asked for one computer, Aitech offered to develop its signature processing card at its own expense for all three computers required by the project.

"They are unbelievably responsive," Baber said. "They are aware that the computers are on the critical path, and they are working with us to make sure we meet the schedule."

One computer will support control, command and telemetry processing for the ASTRO space vehicle, as well as flight software and data storage. A second computer controls the satellite rendezvous and proximity system and provides additional flight software and storage.

The third computer is functionally identical to the second. Housed in an orbital replacement unit, it will be physically removed and replaced to demonstrate servicing an on-orbit spacecraft that needs a new computer.

Aitech won the 2003 Supplier Innovation Award from Phantom Works and the 1999 Exceptional Company Performance Award from Boeing's Reusable Space Systems division. The awards recognized Aitech's leading-edge technology and outstanding quality, cost, and schedule performance.

The team spirit demonstrated by Aitech in working together to address and resolve mutual problems is an ongoing characteristic of its relationship with Boeing. Baber said he is actively working to help Boeing find other uses for Aitech's products.

Embedded Plus

Another example of a small and nimble supplier that gets things done quickly is Embedded Plus Engineering, a 5-year-old, woman-owned small business in Tempe, Ariz., that specializes in real-time embedded system design and system modeling and simulation.

Embedded Plus has applied a suite of software development tools, object-oriented software techniques, and modeling and simulation expertise to support a variety of Boeing projects.

Embedded Plus supports the Phantom Works' Network-Centric Operations (NCO) Thrust by providing software development, training, and support for Boeing's Discrete Event Simulation Interactive Development Environment (DESIDE) simulation development technology.

"They overdeliver," said Allan Artimisi, NCO Thrust Supplier Management & Procurement manager. "When they see something that needs to be done, they just do it. They are always making little improvements without charging us for them."

DESIDE can be used to create large-scale executable simulations and models for analyzing complex system architectures that involve an enormous amount of information flow, such as simulations of battlefield scenarios.

"They are breaking ground in how we do system and software engineering in the modeling world. They have always delivered an exceptionally fine product," he said.

Embedded Plus also has provided process technology and technical assistance for the 7E7 Dreamliner, F/A-18 Hornet, Multi-mission Maritime Aircraft and Air Traffic Management.

Integrated Defense Systems selected Embedded Plus to partner with Boeing and the U.S. Air Force in the Department of Defense Mentor Protégé program because of the company's expertise in Unified Modeling Language (UML), object-oriented techniques, FAA certification, and modeling and simulation.

Earlier this year, Embedded Plus received the Bronze Phantom award from Phantom Works for exceptional performance developing DESIDE. Boeing owns DESIDE, but Embedded Plus has done much of the software development.

Embedded Plus has gone out of its way to learn Boeing methods by sending staff to Boeing Corporate Leadership Training and incorporating Boeing best practices into their business processes.

"We help them be more competitive on government projects, and they work with other companies and bring that knowledge and expertise to the table," said Christi Scott, NCO Modeling and Simulation program manager. She said Embedded Plus has contributed its own time and resources in developing DESIDE and is "more than willing to take on whatever challenges we ask."

"When we evaluated DESIDE suppliers, we asked several companies to extend their UML products to include our simulation needs, but most of them didn't grasp the potential benefit. Embedded Plus saw the light," said Joanne Kuhns, manager of Phantom Works' Analytic Modeling and Simulations group.

"Their biggest challenge was the time crunch because we always need a three-minute egg in 10 seconds," she said. "They hire very smart people and work very efficiently."

MD Robotics

MD Robotics, a Canadian space hardware company, is another key technology supplier for Orbital Express. Like Aitech, MD Robotics has invested its own resources to develop unique technology that helped Boeing secure an important contract.

"They were one of the major factors in capturing the program," said Baber.

MD Robotics will provide the robotics system to capture and service satellites in orbit. The Brampton, Ontario-based firm will provide a ground segment to monitor and control the robotic operations and the orbital replacement unit containers and interfaces that are expected to become standard on future missions.

MD Robotics built the articulated robotic arm that is now standard equipment on the Space Shuttle. It is supplying a 50-foot boom extension developed in the wake of last year's Space Shuttle Columbia tragedy. The extension will enable astronauts to inspect previously unobservable portions of the shuttle's thermal protection system for damage after reaching orbit.

MD Robotics also supplied the robotic arm for the International Space Station, along with a mobile transporter and work platform for ISS servicing and construction.

"There is no real competition," Baber said. "They are the only subcontractor with this kind of technology."


Mitsubishi Electric Corp. invested its own money to develop a second-generation antenna system for Connexion by Boeing, shattered the usual development time, dramatically reduced production costs, and helped Boeing's advanced ultra-high-speed in-flight data, entertainment, and Internet service reach market well ahead of the competition.

Commonly known as MELCO, the Japanese company's steerable, mechanical-reflector antenna system is largely credited for Connexion by Boeing's recent commercial successes.

"They've made us look good, meeting every challenge set for them as our business has matured," said Connexion by Boeing's Jeff Flagel, director of Supply Chain Management. "Nobody has ever had a broadband satellite communications system like it. It's cutting edge."

Connexion by Boeing provides high-speed Internet service to airline passengers while in flight. The key enabling technology is the antenna system used to maintain connectivity by bouncing signals off existing satellites from moving airplanes.

Before the 2001 terrorist attacks, Connexion by Boeing and MELCO worked together on a system based on the phased-array antenna technology initially developed by Boeing Phantom Works for military applications. Post-9/11, airline priorities called for a less expensive, more capable system able to maintain satellite connections at the high latitudes flown on long-haul intercontinental routes—routes that posed coverage limitations for the electronically steered phased-array antenna.

MELCO invested approximately $30 million to develop an innovative system able to track satellites lying near the horizon, as viewed from an airplane at altitude, providing vastly increased coverage at high latitudes.

MELCO met all of Boeing's cost and schedule requirements, cutting the customary development cycle in half.

"MELCO delivered an airborne-qualified antenna in 20 months after contact award," said Ed Laase, director of System Development. "For such a complex piece of electronics, it was an incredibly short period of time."

Darrin Luther, senior manager, Connexion by Boeing Satellite Communications, said the standard flow for design, fabrication, and test for a similar project—"even by suppliers savvy with the airplane certification process"—could take up to 36 months.

First-generation Connexion by Boeing antennas using phased-array technology consisted of a 3.5-inch-thick conformal rectangle attached to the top of an airplane's fuselage, like a thin mattress. The low-profile antenna produced less drag, but its solid state, electronically steered design was costly to produce and lacked the connectivity coverage demanded by airlines for intercontinental routes.

Connexion by Boeing's new antenna fits inside a teardrop dome less than a foot tall. It produces some aerodynamic drag but is significantly more cost effective than the phased array antenna and can locate and track satellites from directly overhead to the visual horizon, 360 degrees around the airplane.

"It costs several orders of magnitude less to produce than the phased array," Luther said.

"It was the first time in my company history that we didn't build test software first and went right to flight software," he said. "It's an example of a company accepting a very challenging schedule, and it serves as a breakthrough example of how to optimize the total design, fabrication, and test flow. Ninety days after the testing, the software was debugged and flying."

"It was a very challenging technical solution," added Flagel. "The antenna is virtually problem free, which is unusual in newly designed, complex hardware. Their culture of dedication and commitment was one of the biggest contributors to success."

MELCO won Boeing's 2003 Supplier of the Year Award for outstanding cost, schedule, and technical performance.

Perhaps MELCO's greatest challenge was the paperwork required for FAA certification. But MELCO made up for lack of experience in the aircraft certification environment by their resolve to produce a successful antenna on schedule.

When an issue over electromagnetic interference arose during qualification testing, "one call to MELCO and they sent over their top tech people to resolve the problem," Laase said. "They didn't question it; there was no pushback. They were only focused on being successful."

"There was nothing that could stop them from achieving the objectives," Flagel agreed. "They are very driven, very determined to be successful."

Since Lufthansa became the Connexion by Boeing launch customer last May, at least seven other airlines have signed definitive agreements or announced plans to equip their long-range fleets with Connexion by Boeing service. Boeing offers the service as an option on most production airplanes, and Connexion by Boeing is also moving into the maritime market.

"We are looking to use companies like MELCO as we go into different markets, companies that are willing to enter into more of a partnership than supplier-customer relationships," Flagel said. "MELCO is working together with us to develop these new markets."


Front Page
Contact Us | Site Map| Site Terms | Privacy | Copyright
Copyright© Boeing. All rights reserved.