The pleasures of plant tours

HPC editor-in-chief Jeff Sloan comments on how infrequently he is invited to tour the plant of a composites manufacturer yet how valuable it is, when he does, to get a glimpse of the culture and personality within those walls.
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Sometimes, when I tell someone from the composites industry that I am the editor of HPC, I hear this refrain (or similar): “That’s interesting. You must see a lot interesting composites facilities.”

Well, yes and no. Yes, we are invited to visit some great composites manufacturing plants —
Lockheed Martin, GKN Aerospace, Plasan and Airbus to name a few — but a lot? No. We are hampered primarily by one thing: Many manufacturers (for reasons you can probably guess) are not keen to give trade editors unfettered access to their manufacturing secrets.

The fact is that our primary goal — to provide you, the reader, with the most useful, credible and applicable stories possible about how composites engineering and fabrication are performed — directly opposes the efforts of many composites manufacturers to hold close the very materials and technologies on which they rely for their competitive edge, revenue and profit.

Thus, even when we are allowed into a composites manufacturing plant, it’s usually with several strings attached, regarding what we can and cannot see, what we can and cannot photograph and what we can and cannot report.

When we do get into a plant, however, what is really interesting is the culture or personality that the facility has adopted, usually a reflection of the owner(s) or founders(s) or the parent company at the helm, and the mission and end-markets that guided them into composites production.

Such was the case when contributing writer Ginger Gardiner was invited to visit Washington-based Janicki Industries a few months ago. You’ll find her report in this issue (see "Composites aid connectivity on commerical aircraft, under "Editor's Picks at topr right). In Ginger’s article, the fingerprints of the Janicki brothers, Peter and John, who started the firm, are everywhere. You’ll learn about how Janicki started as a moldmaker and machining specialist serving the marine market and morphed into one of the most capable and well known toolmakers and, more recently, production specialists that serve aerospace manufacturers in the composites industry.

Janicki Industries shares many hallmarks with other successful composites firms:  strong leaders, niche specialization using a few processes, a handful of proprietary technologies, and production flexibility that has fueled organic growth. I was struck, however, by two things in particular. First, Janicki has developed, via third party software, unusually robust production management systems that allow it to closely track materials use and project costs. Many companies do this, but not as intensely as Janicki has.

Second, I was struck by Janicki’s apparent willingness to encourage and tolerate innovation among its employees. Workers of all stripes are allowed to experiment with software, materials and equipment to help develop the technologies that improve product quality or speed production. Again, many composites manufacturers have some sort of R&D program, but few expand it company-wide the way Janicki has.

A visit to a company like Janicki is valuable because it allows us to share with you the practices and strategies of a well-regarded composites manufacturer. Janicki, however, is hardly alone in the composites community, and we’d love to be able to get our feet into other plants to continue our exploration. Let me know if you’re interested in letting HPC in, and remember that we have become adept at managing whatever strings you might attach to the experience. In the end, it’s our job to help educate the composites world, and we have lots of ways to do that — but, as usual, we need your help to do it.

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