By Glen Martin | Sep 14, 2021
San Diego, California
Composite materials and structures
Fifty years ago, carbon fiber was viewed almost like flubber -- the fictional Disney movie goo that had spooky powers of elasticity and kinetic energy. But carbon fiber was real enough, and its properties were remarkable, even if they weren’t flubber-like. Composed of minute filaments five to 10 micrometers in diameter, carbon fiber was simultaneously light and astoundingly strong. It could also be configured into a vast array of shapes from sheets to rods to tubes. It was literally space-age stuff, with its first broad applications in aerospace.
Now, four decades after carbon fiber first became commercially available, aerospace still absorbs much of the production. But the number of available carbon fiber varieties -- and their applications -- has expanded dramatically since those early years, says Gormican, the CEO of Rock West Composites, a California-based carbon fiber parts manufacturer that has been on the cutting edge of the sector since it was founded 15 years ago. The company has recently opened new corporate headquarters in San Diego and maintains manufacturing facilities in Utah and Tijuana, Mexico.
"I'd say commercial aerospace now accounts for around 80 percent of our business," opines Gormican. "That's still our bread-and-butter. But I'm astonished at how many new applications are coming in -- almost daily, it seems."
Gormican cites a few: portable x-ray machines, high-end race cars, the mobile armatures on robotic surgical devices, oil and gas equipment, and sports gear -- particularly neck restraints and safety helmets.
"It's the ideal material in any situation where both low weight and high stiffness matters," says Gormican. "Not long ago, we received a query from a company that wanted telescoping tubes to transport pumped materials for drywall finishing. That had never occurred to me -- but really, carbon fiber is an ideal material for that application."
Rock West Composites is also selling increasing quantities of carbon fiber to DIY tinkerers.
"We're selling quite a bit to people who are making their own drones for photography or surveying," he observes, "and also to large delivery companies who are working to incorporate drones into their businesses. Commercial drones need to be light, strong, and able to lift substantial loads in proportion to their size -- an ideal application for carbon fiber, in other words."
Online sales -- including to DIY enthusiasts -- is a major driver of business for Rock West Composites these days, says Gormican.
"Our ecommerce sales are growing at 30 to 40 percent annually, and we don't see that changing -- except upward," he says.
Another element driving the sector's meteoric growth is the simple fact that today's carbon fiber isn't your father's carbon fiber. Or more accurately, you can still find dad's carbon fiber if you want it -- but it's just one member of a large and growing family of variants, each of which has specific qualities determined by different incorporated compounds and production processes.
"In the last 15 years or so, we've seen tremendous progress in the standardization of carbon fiber," says Gormican, "and we now have a very wide range of materials to choose from, varying from $20 to $3,000 a pound in price, each with a particular spectrum of applications."
Rock West Composites doesn't actually make carbon fiber. It chooses carbon fiber compounds with appropriate properties and shapes them into products specified by its clients including tubes, plates, rods, sandwich panels, and components fabricated to precise specifications. Or sometimes it will sell base material directly to clients who want to do their own work.
With its 107,000-square-foot headquarters in San Diego, Rock West Composites is close to America's aerospace nexus, which was -- and remains -- a primary source of revenue. But Southern California is also home to big ports, essential facilities for both receiving raw materials and shipping finished products. Too, San Diego is contiguous to Tijuana, where Rock West maintains a 15,000-square-foot production plant.
Prior to starting Rock West Composites, Gormican worked in the defense industry, where both culture and security strictures necessitated "playing everything close to the vest." That's changed with Rock West -- to his great relief.
"We conduct our business with a purview that is both broad and transparent," says Gormican. "Our mission is to keep things simple. Our books are open -- we share financial information with our key customers. Are you an aerospace company that wants stock material for your own development? Fine. Or have you taken an idea through development to proof of concept and want us to handle the fabrication? Again, that's fine. And everything is fine with us at any other step of the general production process. We'll sell to big companies, small companies, and any company in between, and we're happy to work for our direct competitors. We just want to make it easy for people to buy from us. We have a simple strategy that has served us very well -- meet requirements, set a fair price, and deliver on time. Just do a good job, in other words."
Challenges: "COVID has been a huge challenge," Gormican says. "Thanks to our defense contracts, we were able to keep working through the worst part of the pandemic, so we were fortunate. Also, supply chains were and remain an issue. It hit the industry as a whole very hard and is likely to be with us next year. It's basically the hoarding-the-toilet-paper thing -- except for carbon fiber, not TP. Everybody bought as much carbon fiber as they could to preserve their position, but that just made it worse for the sector as a whole."
Opportunities: "As I said, it's hard to keep up with the applications for carbon fiber," says Gormican, "and each new application, of course, is an opportunity for growth. We see huge downstream growth, and that -- combined with our current business -- is real cause for optimism."
Needs: "It's always people -- that's the perennial top need," says Gormican. "Finding and keeping talent is tough. That's why we put our people first, even before our customers. We do all we can to find and keep skilled people, and one way we do that is by making them company owners. Our team members are shareholders -- they own the company. We're not a target for acquisition because we don't turn profits over to investors. We're fair, we pay commensurate with the market, and we give our team members a piece of the equity. Owners just care more."