By Eric Peterson | Jun 08, 2021
West Jordan, Utah / San Diego, California
Composite materials and structures
After 20 years in composites manufacturing, Erickson struck a deal with co-founder and CEO Jim Gormican to launch Rock West in 2009 from the remnants of a shuttered composites operation in the Salt Lake Valley. "We ended up partnering together," says Erickson. "He's in San Diego and I'm in Salt Lake City."
The goal: lifting the mystique from carbon fiber and other composite materials and bringing them to new industries largely through e-commerce. "I had this vision of bringing composite materials to the Internet, and making what was previously mysterious aerospace, rocket-science kind of stuff," says Erickson. "It's really not that complicated. The more we share with people, the more we make access easy for people, the more customers we're going to generate long-term."
The company offers both stock carbon-fiber tubing, rods, plates, and other structures as well as custom-made parts. As both a manufacturer and a reseller, says Erickson, "We often talk about trying to be the Home Depot of composites."
He adds, "I think our innovation is our approach to selling, and making product available to more people. We're really lean, we've been doing it a long time, so we've gotten really good at it."
About 55 of the company's 170 employees are in Utah, with 80 at the headquarters in San Diego, and 35 at a third company facility in Tijuana, Mexico, that started operations in 2018. The San Diego crew focuses on one-off custom aerospace components since manufacturing launched in California in 2015 -- which moved to a larger building in early 2021 -- while the original facility in Utah's wheelhouse is higher-volume commercial parts. "Most of our stock, online products are made in Tijuana now," says Erickson. "The stuff we do here [in West Jordan] now is largely custom materials, custom engineering -- it's a lot more than just a stock tube."
Key markets change from year to year, but Erickson says manufacturers of aircraft and drones, robotics, and high-end auto racing have been strong sectors for Rock West recently.
It takes a certain mindset to redesign parts for composites, but many customers have seen a big return on investment by doing so, including a manufacturer of tools for dent repair that now uses Rock West to supply them with hammer handles to replace the legacy metal tubing. "Fast-forward 10 years later, we're still building carbon-fiber handles for this guy," says Erickson.
Composite production, traditionally manual, has gotten a boost from new technologies in recent years at Rock West. "We've managed to automate," says Erickson. "We have two six-spindle filament winders that wind six parts at a time, whereas a lot of companies wind one or two at a time."
Growth has been strong and steady, with an average compound annual growth rate north of 25 percent. Erickson says 2019 was "a huge growth year," but 2020 cooled the company's hot streak a bit. "COVID last year kind of flattened us out," says Erickson. "We had a $6 million customer that basically turned off, so we had to try to fill that hole. We didn't quite do it completely."
The company has stayed true to its original vision, he adds. "We want to make it more accessible, less intimidating, more friendly, and invite more people in. That is the Rock West mission: Whether it's educating people or providing easy access to materials with low order minimums or working with you on your super custom aerospace product, we want to be an easy-to-buy-from company."
Erickson says he feels the strategy should continue to catalyze dynamic growth: "I feel like there's still a ton of opportunity. We're going to do about $18 million this year. I feel we could do $100 million. The market's there."
Challenges: "Today, short-term, in front of my nose, it's hiring," says Erickson, noting that the company has open positions in both Utah and California. "We're down a couple key people on our team right now, so everybody's feeling overworked."
But the bigger obstacle is "a perfect storm of supply-chain issues," he adds, citing more than 40 price increases ranging from 2 percent to 23 percent for Rock West's raw materials in April and May 2021. "Carbon fiber's going through the roof, resin prices are going through the roof. I've been doing this for 35 years, and I've never seen anything like this."
Opportunities: "The drone industry's been really hot lately, whether if's Facebook or Amazon or aerospace companies," says Erickson. "It's been amazing how many companies are buying carbon-fiber structural pieces like we build and building drones."
"There are countless robotics applications," he adds. "Mostly what we do for those guys is tubing that's used in some sort of structural application where being super lightweight and stiff is an advantage because they're moving back and forth quickly."
Needs: "Honestly, I think it's customers," says Erickson. After moving to the larger facility in San Diego and transferring the production of stock parts from Salt Lake to Tijuana, Erickson recites the mantra, "If you build it, they will come. We've got a ton of capacity open."