14 Sep, 2005 By: Cadalyst Staff

With assistance from the NASA-funded Space Alliance Technology Outreach Program, a precision manufacturer of mechanical components has solved a mystifying situation in the production of an aluminum battery cover, thereby gaining a viable edge on the competition.

Called SATOP, the program is operated by the Technological Research and Development Authority. It provides free engineering assistance to small businesses with technical challenges through the expertise of the program's Alliance Partners, 50 aerospace companies and universities involved in the U.S. Space Program.

Collins Manufacturing produces an aluminum battery cover that is bead-blasted on one side and has two blind threaded holes on the other side. As part of the manufacturing process, once the parts are anodized, they are cleaned and sent to an outsourced company for sealing. 

"When the plates returned home, along with being newly sealed, they were also discolored," said Collins Manufacturing Vice President Jim Whittaker.  "We couldn't identify the root of the problem."

Though a little discoloration may seem inconsequential, Whittaker realized that the staining along the beaded side meant there was some sort of contaminating element in the process and he needed to determine what that element was.

"Between the different chemicals used and the processes involved in the complete manufacturing of the cover, it was difficult to determine what was causing the contamination," said Whittaker.  "We needed a definitive answer."

After meeting with the three companies involved in the process of manufacturing the battery cover, it was evident that a solution would not be easily found.

Seeking validation for his concerns and a solution, Whittaker turned to SATOP. After a recommendation from Jonathan Gemmen at the Metro Orlando Economic Development Commission, Whittaker filed a Request for Technical Assistance (RTA) with the program's Florida office.

SATOP Florida senior program engineer Christophe Gilfriche paired Whittaker with Ernie Banks, a veteran engineer at The Boeing Company. Banks possesses years of experience in anodizing space hardware and has conducted numerous investigations to locate contaminating influences.

"I was excited to work on another anodizing project," said Banks. "I felt confident that I could solve their mystery contamination phenomenon."

After talking with Whittaker and receiving two of the contaminated covers, Banks determined that the staining was similar on both the external and internal surfaces. Banks also noticed that the stains were aligned through the blind threaded holes. This led Banks to believe that the threaded holes were the key to establishing the source of the stains.   "These parts go through a lengthy manufacturing process before they are complete, and occasionally, chemicals used in the anodizing or cleaning processes are not completely dry," said Banks. "It is my opinion that the chemical residue dripped out of the threaded holes and caused the discoloration."

Banks sent the samples to NASA for further confirmation.  NASA engineers ran chemical analysis tests on the samples and concluded that the stains were the same internally and externally. This proved that the stain residue on the plates was caused by chemicals draining out of the threading holes. Based on the data provided by NASA, Banks recommended that Whittaker dry the holes before cleaning and plug the holes to prevent any fluid intrusion.

After trying the solution provided by SATOP, Whittaker was able to produce the plates without any discoloration. The company's success has been recognized in the industry, so much so that Collins Manufacturing has secured a substantial annual contract -- a contract previously held by the competition.

"SATOP is a fantastic resource when mainstream answers aren't available," said Whittaker. "It gives Collins Manufacturing validation when I can tell my clients 'I had NASA looking into this.' This lets my customers know that we are doing whatever it takes to fix the problem."

"This is just another example of how SATOP helps small business owners and gives them credibility and validation through the expertise provided by our Alliance Partners," said Gilfriche. "Boeing has come through for Collins Manufacturing and ensured it will continue to be successful. That's just good business all around."

About the Author: Cadalyst Staff

Cadalyst Staff

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