DYNAMIC FABRICATION: A MISSION OF GROWTH

FF Journal, written by Nick Wright

dfi welding

Known for quick turnaround on close-tolerance parts, Dynamic Fabrication propels the rocketry industry.

Within the tens of thousands of square feet where aerospace and rocketry companies build their high-tech craft, an impressive array of machinery caters to every aspect of construction. But just because Raytheon, Lockheed Martin or SpaceX have the machines needed to fabricate what they want, that doesn’t mean they do so. They often outsource the work instead to fabricators that are highly specialized in welding hard metals, bending complex shapes and hitting tight tolerances. Much of the time, fabricators take on overflow work the OEMs want to get off their plate.

The aerospace and rocketry industries are a boon to fabricators and contract manufacturers that have the right equipment, personnel and proximity to complete jobs for which there is no margin for error. For this month’s special report, FFJ takes an in-depth look into a diversified metal fabricator that produces low volume parts and assemblies for the aerospace and rocketry markets, which might provide clues about how the industry will evolve.

Founded in 1981, Dynamic Fabrication Inc., Santa Ana, California, manufactures all-metal components for industries spanning defense and aircraft, pharmaceutical, oil, energy, environmental and entertainment. These are common clients for fabrication shops but DFI’s specialty is what President Mike Kartsonis calls short-run, quick turnaround, hard-to-do parts. Those include components for missiles, rockets, commercial and military aircraft for clients such as General Electric, Lockheed, Aerojet Rocketdyne and SpaceX. Most of the time, DFI’s fabrication crew works from client-submitted blueprints that typically do not indicate what the part is for. However, DFI’s 22 employees aren’t hung up on the mystery of what it is they’re making. Their concern is getting the job done to exact specifications.

Supersonic work

mike-dfiInside DFI’s main fabrication facility, each worker has an individual work cell containing a 6 ft. by 12 ft., blanchard ground layout table. Grinding, deburring and finishing occur in the yard, and DFI’s 12,000 sq. ft. addition, completed in February, houses machining and inspection operations.

About 60 percent of DFI’s business comes from the aerospace industry, says Kartsonis.

“Most of the work we do for private space companies is associated with prototypes and one-of-a-kind projects,” he says. “The commercial airliner jobs typically consist of higher quantities of items produced with a larger quantity of parts involved for each project.”

Kartsonis surmises that the type of work aerospace and rocket companies regularly send DFI is often a result of the companies being overloaded with work. Those customers also recognize DFI’s high-quality output, as it is AS 9100 Rev.C certified.
“For example, we manufacture parts for Meggitt Defense, which has a fixed cost per hour. They look to us, where the overhead is minimal, to complete projects within budget,” he explains. Variation in how long it takes to complete a job in-house could cost OEMs more than budgeted. “But when they come to DFI, they can expect no variable costs, which is an advantage.” 

One of DFI’s contract customers is Aerojet Rocketdyne, a Sacramento, California-based rocket and missile engine manufacturer. For Aerojet Rocketdyne’s GQM-163A Coyote Supersonic Sea-Skimming Target (SSST) missile, made for the U.S. Navy, DFI fabricated a 17-4 stainless steel insulation grid that is placed inside the rocket’s combustor assembly. The SSST, a training missile intended to simulate anti-ship cruise missiles, surpasses speeds of Mach 4. 

The cognizant supply chain material program manager at Aerojet Rocketdyne cites Kartsonis’s reputation for working on the motors. DFI can weld necessary brackets to some of the hardest metals Aerojet Rocketdyne supplies. “He does it proficiently, better than anyone else, and he also fabricates the brackets themselves. He’s got the capability to weld stuff to M300 [stainless steel] that’s not supposed to be done,” he says. “With metal that hard, it’s really difficult work and he’s a real expert at it. [DFI is] one of the best fab shops out here in Southern California.”

rocket-tooling

For the rest of Aerojet Rocketdyne’s combustor assembly, DFI makes about 400 1⁄2-inch tack welds, which are fluorescent magnetic particle inspected to ensure tight tolerances. “DFI welds the components onto the cast piece supplied by Aerojet Rocketdyne, and sends it for multiple rounds of quality assurance checks, including fluorescent mag particle inspection,” he says.
The SSST missile is emblematic of the work DFI takes on. It’s always different as aerospace companies unload projects with which they might otherwise be overburdened, whether it’s machining, welding or fabricating fixtures and tooling.

Elevating business

Because Southern California is a dense community for aerospace, defense and especially rocketry, proximity to customers is crucial to retaining business. DFI has done satellite work for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and custom tooling for SpaceX, the private spacecraft company owned by former PayPal founder and current Tesla Motors President Elon Musk. SpaceX is headquartered in Hawthorne, California, about an hour from DFI.

One project, featured prominently on DFI’s website, is a liquid oxygen fuel tank for Masten Space Systems in Mojave, California. Masten supplied the two halves of spun aluminum, for which DFI welded one pass before sending it out for X-ray testing. Once it was sent back, welding was completed and followed by hydrostatic testing. There are brackets on the inside, machined within 0.003 in. tolerance. Masten worked with another integrator for the rocket’s assembly. (The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency recently awarded Masten a contract to develop an Experimental Spaceplane-1, or XS-1, a reusable space vehicle.)

The success Kartsonis and DFI has had with its rocketry and advanced aerospace clients wasn’t achieved overnight. At first, DFI did some Navy and oil industry work, gradually entering the aerospace market while continuing to elevate its quality standards and tolerance-holding skills. Through word of mouth, DFI worked with additional clients and joined a growing number of approved vendor lists.

“Thirty-three years later, we’ve worked with the majority of aircraft companies, which is another feather in DFI’s cap,” he says. “Our ongoing and long-term relationships with our clients are a testament to the high quality work DFI produces.”

rocket-tank

That’s a trend some industry experts have also noticed. Ed Talerico, aerospace and defense industry director at Infor, a New York-based business applications software firm, says aerospace companies aren’t investing in machinery to bring work in-house.

“That’s a capital investment they gave up some time ago and I don’t think they’ll rethink that,” he says, noting that subcontracting is becoming more domestic, resulting in more business for local fabricators like DFI.

Earning Stripes

Many of DFI’s employees have been there 20 years and more, a point that Kartsonis isn’t shy about sharing. It illustrates the extent to which DFI’s crew can solve a wide variety of fabrication challenges without necessarily requiring the newest technology. Greg Benedict, DFI’s welding supervisor, says the toughest parts of any job are working with hard metals like Inconels and Hastelloys, but also following each company’s uniquely detailed blueprints. “In looking at each individual project, we need to determine and be aware of our clients’ needs and requests. Lockheed, for example, has its own specs for what [material] needs to be used and how it’s processed; other customers have their own as well,” Benedict says. Following all the different specs for the requirements and going from there, is par for the course. Those are skills that, if college grads can’t demonstrate, DFI teaches younger workers in-house.

Clearly, training is crucial at DFI. One employee, originally an entry-level part-time worker, has now set up his own welding fixtures under the mentorship of seasoned journeymen. It’s expensive to train him, Kartsonis notes, but it’s more expensive if DFI doesn’t invest in skill building. “DFI encourages its employees to learn as much as they can on the job, and from each other.”

As the workforce changes, so do the industries DFI serves. With the emergence in the last decade of private spacecraft companies, more complex defense projects and construction of new aircraft, it’s crucial for DFI to stay ahead of the curve in terms of equipment and technological advances. Kartsonis recognizes this, and years down the road, it’ll be clear which owners of other successful fabrication shops have followed a similar trajectory.

“The aerospace industry is constantly evolving. Customers want and require more timely delivery for completion of projects. There is also more and more quality assurance certificates required for specialty work,” he says. “We at DFI focus on servicing our customers, not how our competitors operate. It is an exciting time for the fabrication and aerospace industries overall, and we’re looking forward to what the future has in store.”
FFJ