By Eric Peterson | Dec 01, 2014
Salt Lake City
Founded: late 1960s as a division of Entec Composite Machines and spun off as independent company in 1991
Employees: about 100
CEO Randy Philpot steers the composite manufacturer to booming growth in markets ranging from aerospace to kayaking.
Engineering Technology, Inc. (Entec) started Advanced Composites in-house as a means of demonstrating the former company's filament-winding equipment for customers.
Philpot came aboard in 1984 when the division was an afterthought, with three employees, and he started driving innovation and year-after-year growth.
By the early 1990s, the division had nearly 15 employees and was a competitor of Entec's customers, who also got a firsthand look at Advanced Composites' manufacturing processes when they came by for a meeting.
"It wasn't a really good fit," says Philpot of the rationale for Entec's spinoff of the company in 1991. In the 23 years since, Advanced Composites has boomed to 100 employees while averaging 20 percent annual growth.
In response to the growth, Advanced Composites is adding nearly 15,000 square feet of manufacturing space, bringing the total to about 50,000 at its facility in southwest Salt Lake City.
Innovation in diverse markets has underpinned the growth. "What makes us different is the wide range of processes we're involved in and the wide range of materials we're utilizing," says Philpot. "We can do some really complex things and do it all in-house."
He points to in-house filament winding, compression molding, lay-up manufacturing, mold-making, tool-making, and a wide range of finishing, including grinding, bonding, milling, and painting, as examples of the former, using materials like carbon fiber; E-, S-, and G-Glass; and aramid fiber.
Instead of buying pre-impregnated filament from other suppliers, Advanced Composites does wet winding in-house -- saving its customers money and improving quality control. For competitors that source pre-impregnated fiber, "There are several steps that go into the material that raises the cost, where we're just using raw materials," says Philpot.
Additionally, adds Philpot, "We've custom-formulated most of our resin systems," many of which stand up to high-temperature, high-pressure applications.
"Right now, we're doing the most business in the commercial and military aerospace business," says Philpot.
Thanks to AS9100/ISO 9001 for its manufacturing and design systems, Advanced Composites now works on projects for heavy hitters like Boeing and Airbus as a sub-tier supplier. "We've done some stuff that's going in the 787s and other platforms," says Philpot.
Aerospace now accounts for about half of the company's business and has fueled a growth spurt that has hit clips as high as 45 percent in recent years.
But Advanced Composites isn't a one-trick pony: It does a fair amount of custom work for the defense, energy, transportation, and medical industries, and it's also in the outdoor recreation business -- composite oars and bike parts account for 10 to 20 percent of the company's sales.
"The recreational stuff we do comes from our personal interests," says Philpot, a longtime kayaker and bicyclist. In fact, he was making composite kayaks and paddles before he joined the company in 1984.
Does he still go out and hit the whitewater? "Yeah, a little bit," he laughs. "I'm a little more cautious now."
Challenges: A more competitive market for CNC machining equipment."When the economy took a dive, there was a lot of CNC equipment available and that's tightening up," says Philpot. "Back then, we'd buy used equipment at auctions." Not anymore. "Capital costs for CNC equipment will certainly be going up."
Opportunities: Growth in niche markets for custom products. "They require specific areas of expertise," says Philpot. "If there's some complexity and variability and it's not huge volumes, that's where we have opportunities." The company also has plenty of runway for growth in aerospace, he adds.
Needs: "Skilled, qualified people," says Philpot. "In Utah, unemployment is quite low and local government is trying to attract the Boeings of the world. AS the economy has ramped back up and if construction is coming back, we'll be competing for good workers."
"Manufacturing was a lost art, but I think that's changing. Now the trade schools and universities are trying to have programs specific to composites."
Why the resurgence? "They say the U.S. is one of the lowest cost places to manufacturer in the world, due to low energy and materials costs and automation."