LONG BEACH, Calif.—One of the most overused words in business is “unique.” Many companies make claims about products and processes they claim are one of a kind, but mostly those are overblown marketing bravado.
But for Long Beach-based Rubbercraft Corp. of California, part of the Sanders Industries group of companies, it boasts one product line that actually may meet the definition of unique. That product is elastomeric bladder tooling that is up to 70 feet long. It is used to produce large composite structures for use in the production of airframe structures, including such aircraft as the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350, said David Lee, Rubbercraft vice president of engineering.
“Our customers have told us we're globally unique with the particular product line that we've developed,” he said. “Our technology enables them to create those fuselage sections in one piece. Without our product, it wouldn't be possible. The tooling addresses many manufacturing challenges with different geometries and different shapes of fuselages.”
Rubbercraft's process for making the elastomeric tooling dates back 15 or so years, but when the company moved into its new factory in an industrial park adjacent to the Long Beach airport in 2011, it did so with this product line—and its potential growth—in mind.
Lee, in fact, a 23-year company veteran, took a year off from his normal responsibilities to oversee the building's construction, the plant layout and installation of the proper infrastructure for a facility that would be seeing about 75 percent of its output headed for aerospace and defense.
Much of that meant having the open space to accommodate the long presses needed to produce the elastomeric tooling. While most of the 140,000-sq.-ft. plant has columns placed 60 feet apart, the area with these presses has 90 feet between columns. There are two of the presses in the plant now, but the factory is set up to add two more.
Currently, Rubbercraft can make the product up to 70 feet, though the longest it actually makes is 65 feet long, Lee said. There is one potential project that would call for a 90-foot long product. He noted that with a product of that length, there actually needs to be 180 feet of space, accounting for the length of the press and the room to remove the 90-foot mandrel used in production. The Long Beach facility has more than 250 feet of space, so accommodating the longer product will be no problem.
“We are sole source at this point (for the elastomeric tooling),” he said. “I'm sure there are people very interested in it, but it's a very challenging product to try to replicate.”
Lawrence O'Toole, CEO of Sanders Industries who oversees the Rubbercraft plant's operation, said at first glance it just appears to be a basic piece of long rubber, until you see all of the material science that goes into it. “These parts don't fly away with the aircraft, but they are instrumental in the production of it,” he said.
From Lee's perspective, Rubbercraft, which was founded in 1902, has a history of mitigating risk, and that shows up in this technology. “We take on challenges that many companies won't,” he said. “The opportunity was shared with us and competitors, and everybody backed away because of their own risk. We kind of look at things with a different approach. 'What do we need to do in order to make a product?'—instead of coming up with excuses why we can't.' ”
He has been in the rubber industry for more than four decades, spending time at a number of other rubber firms before landing at Rubbercraft. He said this has been by far the most exciting. He has had the chance to have face time with customers all over the world to help solve difficult problems.
“When a customer has a problem, that's normally when we get involved to try to design a new solution,” Lee said. “The bladder business was an opportunity to solve a problem and to become a sole-source supplier.”