Manufacturing

Manufacturer soars to new heights

Composite Builders signs deal to supply in-space vehicle company Firefly Aerospace.

December 13, 2019
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Composite Builders
A Composite Builders worker puts the finishing touches on a carbon fiber part for an autonomous vehicle. Courtesy Composite Builders

Composite Builders is shooting for the moon.

The Holland-based fabricator of advanced composite and carbon fiber structures for the mobility sector just signed a deal to become a supplier for Austin, Texas-based Firefly Aerospace Inc., an in-space vehicle company founded in 2017.

While further details of the partnership are confidential, Composite Builders will manufacture launch system parts for Firefly as it develops “a family of launch vehicles and in-space services” with affordability and convenience in mind.

Firefly’s launch vehicles use “common technologies, manufacturing infrastructure and launch capabilities” to provide low earth orbit (LEO) launch solutions for up to four metric tons of payload. 

Combined with its in-space services, Firefly’s mission is “to provide the space industry with access to frequent launches at the lowest cost per kilogram, enabling ambitious commercial and exploration missions from LEO to the moon.”

Brian MacInnes, founder and CEO of Composite Builders, said the fabrication of composite parts for aerospace vehicles requires a high level of quality control, which meant Firefly performed rigorous inspections and testing of Composite’s operations and carbon fiber products before greenlighting the company as a supplier.

Composite Builders is ISO 9001:2015 certified and uses AS 9100 documentation in its processes, which means every component Composite Builders makes has a thorough set of work instructions and quality documentations.

“Our knowledge of risk management for advanced composite fabrications reassures our customers,” MacInnes said. “We understand every decision made for the lamination process and how carbon fiber will perform per skin. There also are important external factors we control that can affect pre-impregnated carbon fiber, such as material processing, exposure, contaminates and temperature.”

MacInnes, a Nova Scotia native, has a 30-plus year background in high-performance watercraft racing. He competed in six America’s Cup events, two Volvo Ocean races and numerous world championships and world record attempts. His competitions kept him moving across the globe with his wife Danielle MacInnes, who is now business development manager for Composite Builders.

Recognizing that lighter means faster and more fuel efficient, MacInnes started building pre-impregnated structures, molds and boats back in the late 1980s and was involved in the design and construction of yachts on which he raced. His efforts led him to two America’s Cup victories during a 13-year career with Oracle Racing.

After retiring from America’s Cup in 2013, MacInnes started Composite Builders in Grandville in 2014. 

He moved production to 500 E. Eighth St. in Holland after outgrowing the Grandville space, then moved the company to its present location at 430 W. 18th St., in the former Holland Hitch facility, in fall 2018. The latest expansion doubled Composite Builders’ footprint to 13,000 square feet and allowed it to add CNC machining equipment, overhead cranes and large-scale molds for boat making, among other capabilities.

MacInnes said West Michigan stood out among all possible locations for a composite fabrication business.

“I came here back in the early ’90s to run a racing team and just saw the huge potential here with the industries that were already here, and the infrastructure set up for businesses such as ours,” MacInnes said. 

“There are a lot of great partnerships we’ve developed with other tool and die shops right here in Holland,” including Christensen Fiberglass, which has a giant mill for making boats, and Plascore, which makes all of the core materials Composite Builders uses in its products, MacInnes said.

He added his company also benefits from proximity to emerging talent from the University of Michigan and Michigan State University, which both have composite materials and structures institutes.

Beyond using Composite Builders’ advanced fiber technology in elite racing yachts, MacInnes has forged partnerships as a supplier to all sorts of other travel and mobility businesses, including prototyping wings, tail sections and landing gear for Mountain View, California-based Kitty Hawk Aero, which makes electric flying cars.

Composite Builders also crafts lightweight components for Foster City, California-based Zoox, a self-driving car startup; as well as for two Traverse City-based robotics companies, Interactive Aerial and Hybrid Robotics.

It is tapping the drone market through working with Lynchburg, Virginia-based LandAir Drone, which makes waterborne drones for military applications; as well as creating underwater hydroelectric blades for the energy company Burton Power; making one-off products for PowerCat, a maker of power pleasure crafts; building yachts for the America’s Cup competition; and producing bicycles and sit-skis for competitive Paralympic athletes such as Oksana Masters and members of the Paralympic Nordic team.

MacInnes said he sees composite and carbon fiber materials as important not just in specialty mobility areas but in regular consumer vehicles.

“You look at a Toyota Prius or even a Ford F-150, and everybody’s talking about how they’re making their cars lighter. The Ford F-150 is made of aluminum now. Chevy has introduced a new carbon fiber box for the back of the truck. I think over the next 20 years, you’re going to see a lot more involvement with composites in vehicles, etc., just to try to get that weight down and make them more fuel-efficient,” he said.

“In 2013, I saw a need for a business like this, not only in Michigan but worldwide. … Composites are playing a huge role in the mobility market today.”

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