I mentioned last week how Colorado missed out on the latest round of the U.S. Commerce Department's Investing in Manufacturing Community Partnership awards, but that the state's aerospace sector, to name one, was deserving of recognition.
Two events last week underscored the strength of the sector. The same day that New Horizons zipped past Pluto with Colorado-made parts on board, officials from NASA and Lockheed Martin quietly landed at NFT's Paradigm aerospace division to recognize the company's contributions to a different space mission, the successful first test flight of Orion in December 2014. (Orion is NASA's new spacecraft, designed "to take humans farther than they've ever gone before.").
NFT president John Allbery and vice president Gary Vaillancourt welcomed a slew of VIPs including officials from NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston and a contingent of Lockheed executives led by Vice President and Orion Program Manager Mike Hawes.
The NASA team made the special trip to Paradigm to award the company the agency's "Program Manager's Commendation" for outstanding performance by the Orion spacecraft team for their contributions to the successful Exploration Flight Test-1 mission. Paradigm earned the award by precision-machining more than 1,000 parts for Orion, no small number and a testament to its expertise. It also sets up the company well for future Orion missions. As one NASA official said, "We're counting on NFT to be a key supplier on our next launch."
Given Orion's high-profile status, the award is significant on several levels. For starters, it says a lot about the unique skill set of NFT. "We built parts for every major subsystem, for every piece of the spacecraft," Vaillancourt says. "For every stage of the launch and flight, NFT was identified as one of the key suppliers of the space vehicle."
Allbery seemed most pleased about the "unexpected" reaction from his visitors. "I think the lead executives from both NASA and Lockheed Martin were fascinated with our non-aerospace business. Unlike some of their other suppliers who operate only in aerospace, we're a precision machinist in industrial, automation and nuclear markets. We have a much broader knowledge base than a typical machine shop," he says, adding, "We can be a more value-add supplier."
For NASA and Lockheed, who Allbery says are hoping to move more supplier contracts closer to Colorado, it's an important differentiator. "Colorado doesn't have as much manufacturing, as many high-precision machinists as other states," he notes, echoing an oft-repeated sentiment.
But the incentive for OEMs like Lockheed, or major manufacturing brands in any other market sectors is unambiguous: reducing a long and costly supply chain with more robust and growing local resources is a powerful trend. We've said it more than once: As the supply chain goes, so goes regional manufacturing.
For NFT, the labor pool is supply challenge number one.
"We're really trying to train up and push U.S. manufacturing." Allbery says, and describing the state of workforce in "advanced" manufacturing says, "We find a lot of machinists in their early 20s and in their 60s. We've missed three generations of machinists. It's a challenging environment."
But even as NFT outsources work to meet the needs of its unique and high-profile customers, the payoff last week for Allbery and Vaillancourt means everything. For the company. For the region. It's worth noting that the Orion test was flung into space by a ULA rocket, also headquartered along the Front Range.
And as the Commerce Department contemplates its next round of Manufacturing Community Partnerships, the work being done by Colorado's charged-up aerospace ecosystem will be hard to ignore.
Bart Taylor is founder and publisher of CompanyWeek. Reach him at email@example.com.