Technology has changed drastically since Ronkonkoma-based East/West Industries opened its doors 48 years ago.
In order to thrive in the competitive global manufacturing environment, the firm, which designs and manufactures aircraft seats and crew life-support systems primarily for the military, has had to embrace new technologies to keep up with growing demand.
Over the past two years, the firm has invested more than $250,000 in new machinery, and this past March, with the help of an Empire State Development grant, purchased a $50,000 3-D printer for prototyping to help speed up design and improve efficiencies.
Other recent equipment purchases include a machine that’s helped cut down the inspection time of complex parts more than 25 percent.
“Technology speeds everything along,” explains Joe Spinosa, vice president of business development and son of founders Dom and Mary Spinosa. “The rest of the world is going through this same digital transition and if we didn’t do the same, we’d be at a competitive disadvantage.”
The company’s in growth mode, seeing a 25 percent increase in sales this year alone with several new federal and commercial contracts, prompting it to look for new, innovative ways to get its products to customers faster and more efficiently, says president Teresa Ferraro, Joe’s sister.
“In the manufacturing environment, it has to be done better, faster, and cheaper [to remain competitive],” says Jim Smith, assistant vice president of economic development at Stony Brook University, who also oversees SBU’s Advanced Energy Research and Technology Center. “You can’t compete without using these advanced new technologies.”
In particular, there are whole new business models evolving because of “additive manufacturing” methods such as 3-D printing, he explains.
“This is really a tool in the company’s arsenal of competitiveness,” Smith says.
For East/West, 3-D printing helped reduce the backlog of work on its single machinist, says engineering manager Mike Vetter.
The firm has one dedicated machinist for prototyping, and at any given time nine or 10 of the firm’s designers could be giving him parts to make. The 3-D printer helps relieve the bottleneck this creates because it can work 24 hours a day, even weekends unattended, Vetter says.
It came in handy recently when the firm had to prototype a large 12-piece subassembly for a presentation pitch to Sikorsky and the U.S. Air Force. The new printer was able to make the parts over four days, a task that would have taken the machinist three or four weeks, Vetter notes.
This doesn’t eliminate the need for a machinist, company officials say.
“It’s not knocking down our head count,” Spinosa says. “It’s just making us more efficient and faster.”
East/West has grown in the past two years from 48 employees to 70, and within the year plans to hire 10 more, Ferraro says.
Due to its growth, it’s expanding from the 32,000-square-foot Ronkonkoma facility it has occupied for two decades and moving to a 50,000-square-foot facility nearby in Ronkonkoma by the beginning of 2017, she notes.
Co-founder Mary Spinosa, Teresa and Joe’s mother, says she’s pleased with the growth, noting “the company started on my dining room table.”
“We’ve been growing all along,” she says. Her husband, Dom, died three years ago.
The firm has won significant new-build military jobs that have contributed to its growth, including securing the contract to make crew chief seats and troop seats for the CH-53K helicopter for the Marines and the CH-47 helicopter for the Army, as well as pilot, co-pilot and operator seats for the E-2D aircraft for the Navy, Joe Spinosa says.
Over the last four years, East/West has branched into the commercial market to diversify. For instance, it’s supplying 1,000-plus seats for the Bell 505 Jet Ranger X program, Bell helicopter’s new five-seat aircraft, he says.
The firm has gotten some assistance to help with its expansion, Ferraro notes.
Besides two ESD grants for technology purchases, it has received tax incentives from the Town of Islip Industrial Development Agency to help with the new facility expansion and discounted electricity from New York State through its ReCharge New York Program.
“The expansion is a big undertaking and without town and state assistance a lot of this wouldn’t be possible,” Ferraro says.
The company said it may consider purchasing additional 3-D printers down the line.
“There’s so many different directions to go with this,” explains Dr. Gary Halada, associate professor in the department of materials science and chemical engineering at SBU. “You can start to think about doing things in ways you never could before.”
You can create complex and unusual shapes and structures that would have been impossible to do using traditional machining tools, he explains.
And the industry is developing new materials all the time such as new composites and polymers that are stronger than what presently exists, Halada says.
“As they advance the materials, we’ll be able to take 3-D printing from prototyping to actually making production parts,” Spinosa says.
But such high-level equipment purchases require careful consideration, Smith says. For instance, depending upon volume, it may pay to outsource work to a 3-D printing service provider rather than making a large investment into owning your own.
Commercial/industrial sector printers can range from $20,000 for simple printers that only print in plastic to $750,000 for a high-end metal printer, Smith says.
East/West will consider its options down the line.
“We continue to advance and improve our capabilities to keep our competitive edge,” Vetter says.
At A Glance
Company: East/West Industries Inc., Ronkonkoma
Principals: President Teresa Ferraro and vice president of business development Joe Spinosa
Product: Aircraft seats and life support systems for high-performance military aircraft and commercial aircraft, and ground support equipment for servicing such aircraft