Broomfield / Boulder / Westminster, Colorado
Founded: 1956 (Ball Corporation: 1880)
Publicly traded (NYSE: BLL)
Employees: Ball Aerospace: 2,700 (2,300 in Colorado); Ball Corporation: 18,500 (3,400 in Colorado)
Industry: Electronics & Aerospace
Products: Aerospace systems and components
VP of Engineering Michael Gazarik says the sky's the limit for Colorado's longstanding aerospace ace.
The Ball brothers launched the corporation that bears their name in 1880 with a $200 loan from their uncle. The company is now the largest manufacturer of recyclable metal and food containers on Earth. But Ball's modern business isn't constrained to any one planet -- or galaxy, for that matter.
Then based in Indiana, Ball expanded to Boulder with an acqusition in the early days of the space program. The son of one of the five founding brothers, Ed Ball looked beyond the company's legacy business when he started Ball Brothers Research Corporation in 1956. After hiring researchers away from the University of Colorado, the company worked on rocket-pointing control systems and subsequently built the first Orbiting Solar Observatory for NASA in the 1960s.
The company's aerospace business is focused on NASA and NOAA projects, developing "complex instrumentation and optics" for spacecraft and a wide range of other systems. The strategy has fostered Ball's workforce of 2,700 employees on the aerospace side. More than 80 percent of them are based in Colorado, where 600 staffers work in positions directly tied to manufacturing.
NASA and NOAA "are primary customers and have been for years," says Gazarik. "Ball Aerospace has incredibly rich heritage, especially with NASA missions."
Past projects include some of the highest-profile spacecraft in modern history, including imaging systems and other components for the Mars Exploration Rover and the Hubble Telescope (and the subsequent optical correction mission in 1993), and such commercial work as DigitalGlobe's WorldView satellites.
Launched in 2009, the Kepler space observatory "found thousands of exoplanets," says Gazarik, "and continues to find planets." The spacecraft was manufactured by Ball Aerospace in partnership with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Ball Aerospace is currently working on the James Webb Space Telescope in partnership with prime contractor Northrop Grumman. In testing now, the Webb telescope is slated to launch in October 2018. Gazarik calls the project "phenomenal," as its million involves observation of some of the most distant phenomena in the Universe, such as the formation of galaxies.
Other ongoing projects include work on NOAA's Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS), a network of cutting-edge weather forecasting satellites (the Ball-built JPSS-1 is slated for launch in September 2017); and NASA's Green Propellant Infusion Mission, a new propulsion system, with Aerojet Rocketdyne. Gazarik says IXPE is "a recent win" for Ball Aerospace, designed to look into deep space for data on neutron stars and supermassive black holes.
All of Ball Aerospace's manufacturing takes place in Colorado, and the company has facilities elsewhere, including a sizable analytics operation in Dayton, Ohio.
In Boulder, the 389,000-square-foot Fisher Complex is the hub for most of the company's aerospace manufacturing, with "state-of-the-art machine shops” and capabilities with composites and exotic materials. "We have a major focus on the space side in Boulder," says Gazarik.
The business is split between civil, commercial, and defense work. Another business unit manufactures RF antennas largely for military aircraft in Westminster, where ground was broken in April 2017 on a 145,000-square-foot expansion that will roughly double the size of the facility.
Innovation touches just about every aspect of the business. Virtual reality has recently emerged as a tool to test CAD designs in a simulated control panel in 2016. "We can put on a headset and you can look inside the instrument from any angle," says Gazarik. "We've found it to be incredibly valuable."
Ball Aerospace's sales totaled $818 million in 2016, up slightly from 2015, and the trend looks to be accelerating. "We've won more than our fair share of work," says Gazarik. "Our backlog is growing." Ball Aerospace added about 300 employees in 2016, and he forecasts a similar number of hires in 2017.
With the second-highest aerospace jobs per capita in the U.S., Colorado has a deep talent pool and it's also easy to recruit transplants, says Gazarik. "What we have is a strong concentration in Colorado and specifically in Boulder," he says, citing quality of life and the presence of national labs as big catalysts.
But the state's entire aerospace ecosystem is enviable with large companies like Ball, Lockheed Martin, and Sierra Nevada Corporation's Space Systems acting as anchors for a constellation of subcontractors. "We both compete and partner with Lockheed Martin," says Gazarik.
Gazarik came to Ball Aerospace in 2015 after an 11-year stint at NASA that he calls "a wonderful experience." He now oversees engineering, supply chain management, and manufacturing.
Challenges: "Getting the best talent," says Gazarik. "There is a war for talent out there." Ball Aerospace is focused on fostering inclusivity in its workforce, he adds. "Diversity is really key," he says. "It's a continued opportunity. . . . We've worked really hard on it."
Opportunities: "I think we see the importance of space growing across the board," says Gazarik. "We know there are at least 3,000 planets out there. Let's go out and learn more about them."
Needs: "The need for skilled trades is really critical," says Gazarik, highlighting workforce training programs with Front Range Community College, Red Rocks Community College, and Metropolitan State University of Denver. "There are great opportunities for those who don't pursue a four-year degree."