Paragon D&E completes expansion project

New equipment and expanded footprint will support mold maker's growth in aerospace and other industries.

Paragon D&E (Grand Rapids, Mich.) has completed a project valued at more than $5 million (USD) that expands its Grand Rapids facility and outfits it with advanced equipment to manufacture molds for jet engine components and other large, complex parts. One of the largest mold makers in North America, Paragon D&E increased the footprint of its manufacturing space by 26,000 square feet, laid a bedrock-like foundation of specialized concrete, and set two large machine tools that will be used to rough-form huge blocks of aluminum and steel into molds used to manufacture parts from composite materials and plastics.

The company is growing in part due to the highly specialized manufacture of jet engine parts from composite materials. The expansion of the now 165,000-square-foot facility will ensure capacity for future growth in other business sectors as well, president David Muir said, including oil and gas production, automotive, heavy truck, mining, marine and nuclear waste industries.

Sales and employment are at record levels for Paragon D&E, up significantly from a recent low point during the recession. Muir said the company employs 225 people and expects to post sales of about $40 million this year, compared with employment of about 150 people and sales of about $30 million in 2006. The company was recently ranked as one of the top 15 mold makers in North America in terms of sales in 2011.

One main driver of Paragon D&E's growth is its aerospace work. Commercial airlines are expected to begin switching on a large scale from jet engines made primarily from metal alloys to composite ceramic materials that can also resist the tremendous heat and rotary forces and still boost the fuel efficiency as much as 20 percent, Muir said. "Basically, most of what the air touches as it travels through the jet engine is starting to be made from composites. Jet engine manufacturers are changing the whole dynamic of how engines operate by significantly increasing their air flow. In many cases, it will be cost-effective to tear existing engines off jets and replace them with composite jet engines." Paragon D&E is in discussions or working with the largest jet engine manufacturers in the world, including GE, Pratt & Whitney and Rolls-Royce.

As part of the expansion, the company is making substantial modifications to a 5-axis Droop & Rein FVP floor mill and computer controls on the machine. "We are taking what would normally be a machine with a 10-foot-long capacity and tripling that," he said. "We are getting into the machine design and build portion of it with our people -- even Droop & Rein is looking at how we're doing it."

In addition to work on the 5-axis machine, Paragon D&E has repurposed a 6-axis Droop & Rein MODIMILL machining center with a 76" by 80" programmable rotary table, brought a high speed Makino A61 NX horizontal milling machine online, added an overhead crane with 25-ton capacity and increased electric discharge machining capabilities for large complex molds. Much of the expansion will help workflow leading to the company's double gantry 5-axis FIDIA milling machine, the largest machine tool of its type in North America.

In addition to cutting large three-dimensional shapes from aluminum, steel, composite, or other materials, the FIDIA can be fitted with sensors so that it can precisely measure the shape of very large objects, allowing Paragon D&E to help customers reverse engineer existing parts such as helicopter cockpits and airplane tail structures to produce replacements. Installed three years ago at a cost of $3.5 million, the FIDIA has a table 60 feet by 12 feet with virtually unlimited weight capacity.

Paragon D&E is ISO certified and registered under International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) as a secured facility for defense component manufacturing, as well as being AS9100 certified for the manufacture of aerospace components.

Muir's grandfather, Fred M. Keller, purchased the company in 1962 and established a strong reputation as a full-service mold supplier with engineering and build capability that has consistently invested in new technology. In the 1980s, the company invested in technology that reduced mold building time in half to satisfy demands by the automotive industry for quick turnarounds. "When I look how far we've come, I think that my grandfather would be pleased with what we've accomplished, " Muir said.