Composite Engineering Inc.
If ever there was a mom-and-pop defense contractor that continues to prove it can play with the top guns in the industry, it is Sacramento’s Composite Engineering Inc.
CEI started out in 1984 in North Highlands as a parts supplier to McClellan AFB. Meanwhile, Mike and Amy Fournier had met at the General Motors Institute in Michigan and decided to go into business in Sacramento. They bought CEI in late 1988, when the composite-parts company was a small operation of 12 employees. In its initial years under the Fourniers, the company subcontracted work for several large defense contractors that supplanted the McClellan work lost with the base’s closure.
And despite McClellan’s changeover, CEI continued to win contracts and grow. In 1991, the company moved to a building in a field on what was a very rural Raley Boulevard. In 1997 the company built a larger building two lots away, then bought the building in between to round out its current manufacturing and office space of 70,000 square feet.
Remote-Controlled Lightning Bolts
These sleek mini-jets are just over 20 feet long, have a wingspan of just over 10 feet, and a maximum speed of .93 Mach. Once launched, fighter pilots in training try to lock these remotecontrolled lightning bolts in their sights to show they’re good enough to shoot something that fast, such as an enemy jet, out of the sky. Once the skeeters have finished their target flying, they are directed to parachute down for recovery and eventual reuse.
Mike Fournier knew the Air Force wanted an upgraded version of its target-practice aircraft, which had been made the old-fashioned way: with metal and rivets. His company specializes in fabricating carbon fiber parts, which are much more temperature resistant than metal. They are also lighter and stronger.
Fournier saw an opportunity. He talked to those who worked with the outdated target planes and asked where they thought improvements could be made. Mechanics, pilots and others wrote down wish lists on what they’d like to see. They were surprised that any contractor would think to ask them, the actual people piloting and maintaining the drones. It was something they’d never experienced. Fournier incorporated the suggestions into his proposed design of the target aircraft, which was to be built with a carbon fiber composite body.
“We were really the only ones pitching something that was new and different,” says CEI spokesman Matt Cano of the contract competition with Raytheon and BAE. “The others were just variations of what they already had.”
The innovations were noticed. CEI won the contract. For Fournier, it was just a logical, systematic way of designing an upgrade. “You talk to people who are going to use your product, and you take the barriers away,” he says.
David vs. Goliaths
CEI’s win was rare in the defense industry. It was a small subcontractor outmaneuvering big prime contractors to win the big chunk of business. CEI beat Raytheon and BAE Systems, each of which pulled out of the target-vehicle niche of defense contracting in the wake of the loss to CEI.
“People couldn’t believe it,” says Cano. The company for the first time had a high-volume production contract, and a newly minted standing in the defense contracting business. “It’s very rare for a small company to win a prime (defense) contract,” adds Cano. “Most don’t have the staff or the management to handle it.” But CEI hired the best specialists it could find to ramp up its production capacity and has so far shown it can handle a big defense contract.
In late 2003, CEI bought Raytheon’s Wichita, Kan., target division and lured key engineers and managers specializing in the technology to join the company. CEI also has target system contracts with Raytheon, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin.
Now CEI has 220 employees, up from 80 in 2002, and is trying to fill 40 openings. A banner hangs on the front of its building seeking technical help.
Jim Jamieson, a buyer and quality assurance manager for the defense contractor Northrop Grumman Mission Systems at McClellan Business Park, has been doing business with CEI for the past 15 years, and he’s watched the company grow under the leadership of the Fourniers. CEI has built for Northrop Grumman items such as antennas, antenna domes and shelves and brackets used in military aircraft.
“When I first started doing business with them they were in one small building and were a 10-person operation,” says Jamieson. “They’ve done very, very well over the years. They’re a very strong composite-manufacturing company.” Jamieson says Mike Fournier’s moves have fueled the company’s success.
“He likes to take on challenges,” says Jamieson. “If he sees a market, he gets into gear and just kind of takes off after it. He figures the problems out.” Jamieson points to CEI’s success in winning the multi-year drone contract as an example of Fournier’s tenacity. “He’s a very determined young man, very knowledgeable. He has a very talented group of people over there.”
It’s also crucial to know the most effective way to bid a contract by building “alliances, networking, and knowing who is in charge of what,” adds Cano.
Still, this big win did have one demoralizing setback. The first test skeeter flight in Florida didn’t have a high enough trajectory from its launcher, and it crashed and burned a few seconds into its flight. Nerves were already frayed, since it happened only a few days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
While CEI’s team was shaken by what had been a spectacular and crushing failure, adjustments were made on the second test craft they built. Less than two months later it was launched successfully with a higher trajectory, and CEI won the contract.
Made in the USA
CEI manufactures the tools needed to build the jets. In one room a computer cuts programmed patterns from sheets of carbon fiber rolled flat onto a large table. It is a high-tech, time-saving technique that used to be done painstakingly by hand.
Laying cut carbon fiber sheets into molds that take up to 100 layers is precision manual work that takes dexterity and patience, says Cano. Hydraulic presses also fuse carbon fiber pieces, which technicians have set onto precast molds. The layers of carbon fiber are vacuum shrink-wrapped onto their molds and frozen. Later they are fused together with heat treatments and cured according to specifications.
The skin parts of the vehicle are spray-painted orange in large dust-proof booths. Racks of finished, shining skeeter shell parts are lined up for assembly. Once the shells are put together, complex avionics systems are installed.
All told, 2,052 precision parts make up each vehicle. And there isn’t any room for error. Parts have to be fabricated within tolerances of .030 of an inch or they get scrapped.
The assembly line is now geared up to make three to four skeeters per month. When completed, each craft is stored in a custom-built shipping container.
CEI is planning to use its foothold in the target niche of the defense industry (subscale unmanned aircraft) to pitch other products to various branches of the military. “We’re about ready to boom again,” says Fournier. “There’s a lot of stuff in the works.”