Hudsonville auto parts maker joins aerospace race

November 14, 2008
| By Pete Daly |
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Automotive parts are still one of Topcraft Metal Products’ major lines of work, but as of last week, the small Hudsonville company has joined the ranks of Michigan's aerospace manufacturers.

At the same time that was happening, aerospace industry representatives were among those meeting at the Automotive Supplier Diversification Summit in Troy last week, and also today and tomorrow at the Michigan Defense and Innovation Symposium in Livonia.

The Michigan Aerospace Manufacturers Association, which is headquartered in Grand Rapids but serves the entire state, is actively involved in both events.

"I think it's really starting to hit home in a very substantial and material way — the need to diversify here in the state of Michigan," said Craig Wolff, vice president of MAMA. The association was formed last year with a state grant to offer help to Michigan manufacturers that want to prepare for and find contracts in the aerospace industry.

"Even though things have been slowing down in auto manufacturing, companies in many cases were still doing well. At this point right now, it's really going downhill," said Wolff.

Michigan has "some amazing companies, with some tremendous talent in their work force, who are really struggling. And the opportunities in aerospace are there," he said. "We're looking forward to expanding our membership group, and we're looking forward to helping these companies diversify."

He noted that Topcraft, which is a member of MAMA, had just received its first order for a part that will be on aircraft used by Delta Airlines.

Topcraft Metal Products was founded in 1971 and now employs about 45. Topcraft president Kelly Weener (pronounced "way-ner") said automotive parts have always been one of the company's major outputs. It also manufactures components for the office furniture industry.

The company has found a niche in producing custom components for a variety of industries. Topcraft has multi-spindle screw machines, Swiss CNC turning equipment and vertical machining centers.

"With the turning centers and technology that we have, it seemed to make sense to us that we could make custom component parts for the aerospace industry," said Weener.

He said that decision was made at Topcraft about a year and a half ago. In October, they got their first order and it went into production last week.

"We still do a fair amount of automotive work," said Weener, although he added that "a lot of (parts) volumes are down" because of the decline in automobile sales.

"We're holding our own pretty well. We've had to make some adjustments in labor in the recent past," he said, "more with cutting overtime and temporary help and stuff like that (to) maintain our full-time crew."

Topcraft parts have been used in cars assembled by the Big Three as well as the Japanese auto companies that now have plants in the U.S., although Weener noted that Topcraft does not directly supply the auto companies, but rather the Tier 1 suppliers.

Weener would not identify the aerospace company for which it is now making a part, nor the part itself. However, Adam Davis, sales engineer at Topcraft, said the part is not an engine component, although it does involve a high degree of precision machining.

"Our strategic plan drove us to pursue work that was more demanding for a tolerance and craftsmanship basis," said Davis. He said Topcraft succeeded in finding automotive work that required a high degree of precision and craftsmanship.

"Then we started looking around at other industries that required the same (degree of precision, and aerospace is one of them," he said.

The aerospace order is "a very small percentage of our sales," said Davis. "And it's really just the first opportunity for us to supply product in the aerospace industry. We didn't want to be in a position where we bit off more than we could chew, so our first purchase order in the industry will allow us to test out our systems and make sure that we have the resources and processes in place.”

Of course, along the way, Topcraft management would undoubtedly hope to find more aerospace parts they can supply.

Weener and Davis said membership in the Michigan Aerospace Manufacturers Association has been helpful.

"It's hard for independent companies to go and attract aerospace business," said Weener. "I think MAMA offers some credibility and multiple manufacturing processes under one umbrella."

As for the current economic uncertainty, Weener said Topcraft is "proceeding with some caution," although he said he did not want to sound pessimistic.

"We are optimistic about ’09 and the potential that is out there," he said, although he added that the changing value of the U.S. dollar compared to other currencies has an impact. The weaker dollar overseas made U.S. production less costly on the world stage, but as of several weeks ago, the dollar began to gain in value against other currencies.

"Where that's going to go next year, we don't really know," said Weener.

The state of the financial industry in the U.S. is also a factor that will ultimately impact U.S. manufacturing, noted Weener.

According to Wolff, the appropriation by the Michigan Legislature one year ago provided $250,000 to MAMA to organize and promote aerospace manufacturing in Michigan, plus another $250,000 to help qualified Michigan manufacturers achieve AS9100 certification, which has been adopted as the quality standard for the aerospace industry.

According to Wolff, legislators who worked to add the $500,000 to the budget were Sen. Mark Jansen, R-Grand Rapids, and representatives Michael Sak, D-Grand Rapids, and Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland.

When the training funding was announced, Wolff said that achieving AS9100 certification is not easy for any company. It involves training employees — costing an estimated $12,000 to $15,000 — and takes months.

Weener said Topcraft holds an automotive industry quality certification, ISO/TS16949, and is now working toward the AS certification for aerospace companies but does not yet have it.

"There is a learning curve," he said.

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