Colorado is a national leader in aerospace, with more industry jobs per capita than any other state. The three finalists for Aerospace Manufacturer of the Year at the 2021 Colorado Manufacturing Awards are a collective showcase of the state's seemingly endless capabilities making vehicles aimed for the stars.
D'Wayne and Stacee Cook bought the contract manufacturer in 2014 when sales were $500,000 and the company had four employees. Just seven years later, Stacee forecasts more than $4 million in 2021 as the head count has eclipsed 20.
Aerospace has driven the turnaround. The industry was an afterthought prior to the Cooks' tenure, which started with ISO 9001 and AS9100 certification, and now it represents roughly 75 percent of MBK's business. "Our biggest customer is actually Ball Aerospace," she adds. "If they start getting behind on timelines, we usually take the offload parts and finish the parts for them." Sierra Nevada Corporation's Space Systems and Honeybee Robotics are other regular customers.
"One of the things that we're known for is hitting tight tolerances," says Stacee. "We also work with a lot of exotic materials. A lot of machine shops are comfortable with aluminum and stainless steel, but they don't like to work with Invar or titanium or any of the exotics, and that's one of the things we do daily."
Equipped with a new second 5-axis CNC machine and what Stacee calls "the largest lathe in the state of Colorado," MBK Machine is in the process of consolidating operations into a single 20,000-square-foot building in Mead after operating two separate facilities in Frederick and Mead.
Florida-based Redwire took flight in 2020 with an acquisition spree that included three Colorado companies: Deep Space Systems, Roccor, and Oakman Aerospace. With seven business units in all, the company now has about 500 employees nationally, and about half are based on the Front Range.
Mark Lake, VP of technology at Redwire's Roccor business unit in Longmont, says the synergy is all about the small satellite revolution. "The satellite industry is going through a dramatic transformation right now," he explains. "Just like the cell phone, there's an amazing amount of data and power capabilities now in much smaller form factors than what we had access to 20 years ago."
As manufacturers make smaller and smaller satellites, the old supply chains don't serve their needs anymore. "That's what created the need and the opportunity for Redwire," says Lake. "There's no mid-market-sized engineering house and manufacturer of critical satellite componentry."
Lake projects Redwire will surpass 1,000 employees in 2022 (with the Colorado crew growing to number about 500) and expects the company to go public through a merger with a SPAC, Genesis Park Acquisition Corp., later in 2021. "We will be traded on the New York Stock Exchange, assuming the deal goes to closure," he says.
CompanyWeek profiles: Deep Space Systems (November 2018): https://companyweek.com/article/deep-space-systems; Roccor: (November 2019): https://companyweek.com/article/roccor
"It's a good time to be in aerospace," says CEO Heather Bulk, noting NASA's slate is enough to keep Special Aerospace Services (SAS) and its vertically integrated SAS Flight Factory in Arvada plenty busy, including "the lunar missions, the continual programs of cargo to station and crew to station, and some really exciting R&D."
The company has doubled in size from about 50 to 100 employees in the last five years. "We're hiring like crazy," says Bulk. "We need the right people -- we need diversity of thought."
The company's hot streak has been held in check by a deliberative style. "I run the company with one foot on the gas and one foot on the brake so that we don't have shocks," says Bulk." I really like that pragmatic, steady approach, but it's tough right now with the demands of the industry. It's tough and exciting at the same time."
For 2021, SAS is working on a number of propulsion systems and other critical assemblies. "We don't do piece parts -- we are the partner," says Bulk. "Our tagline is: 'We build your ideas.'"
CompanyWeek profile (August 2016): https://companyweek.com/article/special-aerospace-services