Worker inspects thermoplastic tubing for airduct assembly
A worker at ATC Manufacturing’s plant in Post Falls, Idaho, performs a quality check on an airduct assembly of thermoplastic tubing that’s wrapped in insulation. (ATC Photo)

“There’s a great future in thermoplastics.”

If anyone ever does a remake of “The Graduate,” that’s how the famous advice given to Dustin Hoffman’s character about the promise of the plastics industry might be updated. And the movie’s locale just might be shifted to Spokane.

At least that’s what a private-public consortium centered in Eastern Washington and North Idaho is banking on. The Advanced Aerospace Materials Manufacturing Center Tech Hub, or AAMMC, sees a great future in the development of thermoplastic composites for aircraft and spacecraft.

Last October, the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration designated the AAMMC as one of 31 Tech Hubs based at sites across the country. That status made the Spokane-based group eligible to apply for a $72 million Phase 2 grant.

The first five to 10 recipients of federal funding are due to be announced in late June or early July — and the leaders of the Spokane Tech Hub are hoping to be on the list.

“The Tech Hub designation marks in inflection point for the City of Spokane. While innovative manufacturing and collaborative research are already happening here, the Tech Hub will take the region to new heights by bolstering that work, boosting our local economy, and creating desirable, good-paying jobs,” Spokane Mayor Lisa Brown said in a statement emailed to GeekWire.

What’s the Tech Hub all about? Aerospace companies with a Pacific Northwest presence, from Boeing on down, are already spending billions of dollars on carbon composite materials — so what difference could tens of millions of dollars of federal funding possibly make?

A different class of composites

The history of carbon composite materials goes way back. Hybrid materials that incorporate carbon fibers and synthetic resins have been used in aerospace and automotive manufacturing since soon after World War II. But the key innovation targeted by the Spokane Tech Hub has to do with the distinction between the mainstream fabrication process, known as thermoset, and the more recently developed thermoplastic process.

“The easiest thing to visualize this is what I’m always telling my students,” said Navid Zobeiry, an assistant professor in the University of Washington’s materials science and engineering department. “When thermosets go through the process, they are like cooking eggs. You start from runny eggs, and then eventually they solidify, and you have your solid thing at the end. You can’t go back to the runny egg again, which means that thermosets by their nature cannot be recycled.”

In contrast, thermoplastic composites are like butter. “You melt butter, you leave it in the freezer, and it becomes solid again,” Zobeiry said. “And you can go through that process several times, so it’s reversible. … In theory, at the end of life, you can melt it, you can take out the fibers, you can re-form it, you can make a new structure. You can reprocess it, so it becomes a ‘green’ choice.”

Unlike thermosets, thermoplastics can be “welded” together to form larger structures. And for some applications, thermoplastics perform better than thermosets under impact loads, Zobeiry added.

Theoretically, the process for manufacturing components from thermoplastic materials could go much more quickly than traditional methods. Zobeiry said that would be particularly attractive for companies focusing on smaller electric aircraft — including electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing aircraft, better known as eVTOLs, air taxis or flying cars.

“If you go to smaller aircraft for urban air mobility, that’s where you have to go to mass market, and then you cannot make that many aircraft using the traditional ways,” he said. “So if you look at the future, we have to go toward a thermoplastic option, both as a green option and for the rate of production.”

Aerospace companies are already starting to head in that direction. The composite materials that Boeing uses in its 787 and 777X jets are “typically a mix of different polymers, mainly thermosets, but also some components of thermoplastics,” Zobeiry said. The mix might be, say, 80% thermoset and 20% thermoplastic.

The down side is that the technology for producing 100% thermoplastic materials on a large scale is significantly trickier than traditional methods. And when it comes to advancing that technology, U.S. manufacturers are lagging significantly behind their European counterparts. The Thermoplastic Composites Research Center in the Netherlands is among the leaders in the field.

That’s the sort of situation the $280 billion CHIPS and Science Act, championed by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., was designed to address. The legislation set aside $10 billion over a five-year period to fund the Tech Hubs program and boost investment in innovative technologies that are central to U.S. economic and national security.

The Spokane-based consortium was among nearly 200 applicants seeking to win Tech Hub status. Its members come from more than 50 organizations — including composite suppliers such as ATC Manufacturing, Toray, Electroimpact and Syensqo; aerospace companies such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Blue Origin; and academic institutions, governmental institutions and Pacific Northwest tribes.

Cantwell said the fact that the consortium was chosen to move on to the Tech Hub program’s second phase serves as a vote of confidence in the plan to upgrade thermoplastic composite technology.

“Being designated a Tech Hub means the United States already believes that we are capable of pulling this off,” she said in April at an aerospace materials showcase at Blue Origin’s HQ in Kent, Wash.

What the Tech Hub can do

A 386,000-square-foot facility would serve as the Tech Hub’s HQ. (ATC Manufacturing Photo)

The Advanced Aerospace Materials Manufacturing Center would serve a base of operations for researchers and the consortium’s members to advance the state of thermoplastic manufacturing.

“Thermoplastics are now used quite extensively in smaller parts, including primary structural parts, but ones that are only up to maybe a few feet at most in size,” said David Leach, director of business development for Idaho-based ATC Manufacturing. “This is about being able to advance that technology to make much larger-scale parts for the next generation of a wide range of types of aircraft.”

The testbed facility has already been chosen: It’s a 386,000-square-foot former manufacturing facility located on 50 acres in Airway Heights, near Spokane International Airport. The building was previously used by Triumph Composite Systems and is now owned by Lakeside Companies.

Why put the hub in Spokane rather than Seattle? The Lilac City and its surroundings aren’t as big of an aerospace powerhouse as the Seattle area, but it does host scores of aerospace suppliers. Boeing’s factories are just a five-hour drive or a quick FedEx hop away. “The proximity of the region to Seattle is really attractive to a lot of suppliers,” said Gynii Gilliam, president of the Coeur d’Alene Economic Development Council. “Of course, operating in both Eastern Washington and Idaho in general is also just less expensive.”

It doesn’t hurt that ATC Manufacturing, one of Lakeside’s companies and a member of the AAMMC consortium, is a long-term supplier of thermoplastic composite components for Boeing.

ATC is also a key commercial partner in NASA’s High-Rate Composite Aircraft Manufacturing project, or HiCAM, which aims to increase the production rate and reduce the cost of composite manufacturing. That’s exactly what the Spokane Tech Hub is aiming to do at the AAMMC facility.

“This takes things from midstream development in the lab to production — which is what I’ve always called the Valley of Death,” said Trevor McCrea, who heads up Syensqo’s thermoplastic application development activities in North America.

The center could provide “one-stop shopping” for companies that want to test-drive new approaches and find their way through that technological Death Valley, said DeWayne Howell, senior applications engineer for Toray Advanced Composites.

If the federal grant comes through, part of the money would be used to purchase a 5,000-ton thermoplastics press capable of stamping out large aerospace components such as door frames or even wing sections.

“We would be the only place in the world to have that capability to make plane parts of that size, and of the type that we need,” Cantwell said in April. “That full-scale fabrication of composite components — for everything from ribs to beams to wings to frames to bulkheads — I think could put us in a place of demonstrating the scale that we need.”

McCrea said one of the goals would be to “bring automotive rates to aerospace quality.” Speeding up the production rate of high-quality parts would help not only the aviation industry, but also the space industry and potentially the automotive industry as well.

The AAMMC is meant to be more than a cookery for carbon composites. “It’s really a testbed facility — not just for proving out the parts, which is a really important part of it — but also for the actual manufacturing techniques to speed up the production and quality,” said Maria Lusardi, the hub’s communications director.

For example, John Shovic, director of the University of Idaho’s Center for Intelligent Industrial Robotics, is working on ways to use robotics and artificial intelligence to improve manufacturing processes.

“What we’re focused on is applying some new AI techniques based on things other than large language models — explainable AI, neural networks and things like that — to specific problems on manufacturing lines, to improve quality, reduce defects and improve efficiency,” Shovic said. “We’re seeing real results with real companies.”

The funding factor

After a year of planning and coalition-building, the Spokane Tech Hub’s organizers are now waiting to find out whether they’ll receive the $72 million they’re seeking from the Economic Development Administration.

In addition to the federal Phase 2 funding, the AAMMC’s five-year budget proposal calls for $8 million in matching funds from industry partners such as Boeing, Collins RTX, Spirit Aero Systems, Synesqo and Toray America, along with venture capital from Lakeside Companies.

The Tech Hub says members of the consortium have pledged $70 million in in-kind contributions — and the Washington state Department of Commerce is offering a $500,000 matching grant that’s contingent on the AAMMC receiving federal funding.

If the AAMMC gets the thumbs up, the money would start flowing in the fall. But it would take a while to ramp up operations.

“The equipment itself is very unique. Some of the pieces have very long lead times, and you have to custom-order them,” Lusardi said. “If we get the funding, there’s a two-phase approach, where we have prioritized what we can get going sooner while we wait on the longer lead-time stuff.”

The Tech Hub is aiming for financial self-sufficiency within three years. And if everything goes right, the hub’s impact could spread beyond the aerospace industry.

“Innovation begets innovation,” said Gary Ballew, vice president of economic development at Greater Spokane Inc. “We look at the Seattle area in the ’90s. And yeah, you had tech, you had Microsoft, but you also had people who thought, you know what, we can charge $5 for a cup of coffee. We can bundle things and have a massive selection of products in this huge warehouse, and people will shop there, as long as we have $1.50 hot dogs. You saw a lot of innovation around that.”

Ballew is hoping the Tech Hub will set off a similar snowball effect in Spokane.

“You just have these people who are thinking innovatively, and will create new things, whether it be in clean tech, or information technology, or cybersecurity or AI,” he said. “So the opportunity itself is super-exciting, but it also puts our area on the map.”

Greater Spokane isn’t the only area vying to be put on the map, however. There are 30 other regional consortiums competing for the Tech Hub program’s five to 10 multimillion-dollar Phase 2 grants. Some of them highlight technological frontiers that are arguably sexier — such as nuclear energy, quantum computing and AI-driven biotech. A couple of the other hubs are also based in the Pacific Northwest, setting up the potential for a regional rivalry.

So what happens if Spokane loses out?

Lusardi said the Tech Hub will keep going, with or without the Phase 2 grant. “We’re looking at other grants and other sources of funding, for both the workforce side and the industrial side,” she said. “The framework is there that we can build upon moving forward. Like many of the other Tech Hubs, it just changes the timeline.”

Leach said the Spokane hub’s industry partners are committed to supporting the AAMMC, one way or another. “I think they all see a great need for this,” he said. “Aside from an actual award, they’re very interested in pushing it forward.”

Back at the University of Washington, Zobeiry said industry backing for advanced materials development is essential — but if there’s going to be a bright future in thermoplastics, government backing is needed as well.

“If you look at the state of research centers for composites in Japan, or in Europe and the U.K., in Canada, they are very different from the U.S.,” he said. “There’s very heavy involvement of governments, because it’s for the national interest. So, I would say we definitely need support from governments when it comes to this important technology. Industry is ill-prepared to do it alone.”

Like what you're reading? Subscribe to GeekWire's free newsletters to catch every headline

Job Listings on GeekWork

Find more jobs on GeekWork. Employers, post a job here.