East/West: 3D prototyping with a capital 3

By GREGORY ZELLER //

East/West Industries felt the need for speed.

The longtime Long Island manufacturer, launched in Wantagh in 1968 and based now in Ronkonkoma, has spent the better part of five decades protecting aircrew lives by developing and producing newer and better aircraft seats and life-support systems primarily for military aircraft, and related ground-support equipment.

But time caught up with the defense stalwart, which is managed today by President Teresa Ferraro and Vice President Joseph Spinosa, the daughter and son of founders Dom and Mary Spinosa. Highly regarded for its work with high-performance aircraft – including concept, design, production and quality assurance – the company faced what Engineering Manager Mike Vetter called “a bottleneck.”

A good reputation attracts new projects and new customers, and East/West Industries hasn’t lacked for any of those. But with only one in-house machinist dedicated to prototyping, and the art and science of metal prototyping requiring significant time and investment, “there was only so much we could do,” Vetter told Innovate LI.

If time caught up with the manufacturer, so did technology. For East/West Industries, the answer was in the burgeoning field of 3D printing.

In March, the company acquired a Fortus 250mc 3D Production System, an advanced 3D printer produced by Minnesota-based Stratasys Ltd. Partially funded by an equipment grant from Empire State Development – ADDAPT, the Hauppauge-based alliance of aerospace, defense and tech firms, helped with the grant proposal, Vetter noted – the $50,000 machine is a high-end prototype device with small-scale manufacturing capabilities, exactly the sort of technological and production leap East/West Manufacturing needed to make.

“We jumped in with both feet,” Vetter said. “Management didn’t want to start with a toy.”

Printing in acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, a common thermoplastic polymer, the Fortus 250mc provides numerous advantages over traditional machining methods, starting with speed. Vetter compared its abilities to those of the one dedicated machinist, who prototyped in metal and could take days to produce just one iteration of a particular design – sometimes, so long that the design might already be obsolete.

“Dozens of man-hours spent,” Vetter noted, “with nothing to show for it.”

With the Fortus 250mc, prototypes can be designed “basically in real time,” he added, allowing engineers to spend those days tinkering and modifying and improving.

“Now, in those three days, you can have a part that’s worth machining out of metal,” Vetter said. “It’s worth that time and investment because you know it will be right the first time.”

The plan now is to train Vetter’s design and manufacturing teams – 16 employees total – to use the Fortus 250mc, which is understandably more involved than your typical desktop inkjet. East/West Industries acquired the machine through CADD Edge, a Massachusetts-based tech reseller that previously provided East/West with Solidworks, a 3D computer-aided design software suite. On delivery day, Vetter noted, CADD Edge provided a brief on-site tutorial and “that was about it.”

East/West Industries will use a training grant from the Huntington office of the Workforce Development Institute to get its designers and engineers “on the same page,” Vetter noted, including a visit in May from Stratasys representatives, who will provide in-depth training to key East/West staffers, who can then train the rest of the design and engineering teams.

The company’s learning curve should be somewhat accelerated, according to the engineering manager, who noted his teams are evenly split between recent college graduates and “grizzled veterans” – and those recent grads, through various engineering-degree requirements and internships, already have 3D printing experience.

It’s mostly on “lower-end machines,” Vetter noted, but it’s still experience enough to help them get up to speed quickly on the Fortus 250mc.

“They’re basically good to go,” he said.

The arrival of its first 3D printing machine is just the vanguard of East/West Industries’ growth plan. Vetter, who has hired three new engineers over the past year, said he is on the hunt for several more machinists and assembly experts, while the company itself is “weighing our options for a relocation and significant expansion.”

While the company is “committed to staying on Long Island,” he wouldn’t say too much about its hunt for a larger space. And while he knows the kind of professionals he’s looking for, the manager also couldn’t say how long it would take to fill those new positions – mostly, he noted, because experienced machinists “don’t grow on trees anymore.”

“Back in the day, when Grumman and those programs left, we’d bring on those guys because they had the experience we needed,” Vetter said, noting a five-month search to fill those three previous slots. “Now you’re either hiring from peer companies or creating these professionals yourself.”

However long it takes to fill those positions, the noteworthy fact is that the nearly 50-year-old firm is in expansion mode – and not only expanding, according to its chief engineer, but surging toward manufacturing’s cutting edge, highlighted by the arrival of the Fortus 250mc.

“This shows our customers that we’re working at the same level as they are,” he said. “We’re showing a dedication to R&D and a willingness to innovate, and we’re showing that we’re continuing to improve our design approach.

“Ten or 20 years ago, having that dedicated machinist just for prototyping was pretty impressive,” Vetter added. “Now we’re taking the next steps.”