Ace Clearwater is investing $1.5 million per year upgrading equipment, training our workforce and exploring new technology that it hopes will attract a “next generation” of manufacturing worker. “Our main focus is trying to find new talent,” Vice President Gary Johnson says. “We want to break the misconceptions about manufacturing because it is an industry where you can do really cool stuff. Manufacturing is the backbone of this country.”
To meet growing demand, ACE Clearwater has added six large machining centers to bring more in-house control to its tooling and machine shop. The company acquired a nine-foot Faro Arm with laser scanning capabilities for portable inspection of dies and large assemblies, which improves production flow. Two new drop-hammers were also installed to increase capacity at its metal forming facility.
Most recently, Ace Clearwater purchased a small $55,000 3-D printer. Engineers at the company were encouraged to experiment with the new technology. They were soon able to replace the aluminum used to make brackets and clamps with ballistic plastic. The weld fixtures are now a combination of plastic and metal. ACE Clearwater has since upgraded to a larger $600,000 3-D printer that prints 44-inch and larger parts straight from the customer’s CAD file. “We load the file into the printer and go,” Johnson explains. “It runs overnight without any need to monitor. It’s worked out really well.”
ACE Clearwater specializes in welding, machining, drop-hammer forming, hydro-forming and precision CNC milling for the aerospace and power generation markets. The company sets itself apart by providing printed miniature models to ensure assemblies are manufactured best. “The Honeywell e-ductor on the Boeing Triple Seven is a big, big program,” Johnson adds. “We can create small versions of the part and can discuss concerns we may have about it. Afterwards, engineers want the miniature parts to put on their desks. It’s a really good marketing tool because people can physically interact with it. It’s really cool.”
The Right Technology
“Technology is what we come to play with,” Johnson says. “Additive manufacturing is here to stay. It’s a game-changer. Pretty soon we will be able to make drop-hammer tools out of plastic. What used to take eight weeks creating fiberglass and plaster forms can now be printed in 24 to 48 hours. And on top of that, they are even better – more accurate than ever. That’s what everyone wants.”
For a long time, price was the main focal point for customers until they were buying problems – not parts, Johnson explains. Quality and delivery have become the frontrunners in terms of customers’ demands. “An 80 percent quality acceptance rate is no longer being accepted,” Johnson explains. “It’s 98 percent and you start getting penalized for anything under that. Sure we have lost jobs to competitors, but we just want that customer to let us know when they want to bring it back. Ninety-nine percent of the time it comes back to us. Because it’s not about price anymore; it’s about performance and quality. “
ACE Clearwater has begun exploring the next generation of radio frequency identification (RFID) that they will assign to each customer’s order. These sensors will travel through the facilities with the job to each work center, tracking the manufacturing process. An online dashboard will report to customers exactly where their product is. The company is also constantly improving and upgrading its ERP system and IT infrastructure for more timely and accurate communication and decision-making capabilities.
“We don’t have a standard product; all of our work is custom,” Johnson says. “We are building different assemblies every day. A lot of customers have retired from the aerospace industry and the new buyers haven’t been around long enough to have a firm understanding of manufacturing. They want to know everything all the time to feel confident. The RFID will give them access. We are kind of excited about that whole thing.”
ACE Clearwater is focused on attracting new talent with state-of-the-art equipment and is going the extra mile to recruit new skilled workers. It even searches into Texas, Colorado and Kansas. “It’s a constant struggle because there is a lot of work with more on the way,” Johnson says. “The commercial aerospace market is exploding and we have a promise and commitment to make sure we deliver. And deliver well. That’s why we say ACE stands for Attitude Committed to Excellence.”