Leadership Grit: Solar Atmosphere’s Steve Prout On What it takes to Grow Aerospace in South Carolina

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Steve Prout

Steve Prout, President, Solar Atmospheres Southeast joined the company in the Fall of 2013 to establish Solar’s newest vacuum heat treating facility in Greenville, South Carolina.

Steve started his career in commercial heat treating and brazing in 1996 and has held a variety of positions in the heat treating world before coming to Solar.  These roles include production manager, plant manager, business development manager, and general manager for organizations such as Paulo Products Company, Bluewater Thermal Solutions and Bodycote.

Steve is a member of the American Society of Materials, the Metal Treating Institute and serves on the Business Advisory Board for his alma mater Bryan College in Dayton, TN as well as serving on the Board for Coldstream Christian Camp in Adams, TN.

Given your national presence and current place in the aerospace sector, why Greenville? Would it have been better to be in Charleston?

Solar Atmospheres has been serving the aerospace industry in the US Southeast for many years.  What led us to finally make the move was a combination of two things, the overall growth of our business in the region combined with the large investment in the region by one of our largest corporate prime customers, Boeing.

Greenville was selected after evaluation of the entire US southeast due to logistical convenience to our existing and potential customer base, but also due to the positive infrastructure we see growing in the state of SC around manufacturing in general but also the aerospace industry specifically.  From SCDoC, to their regional and local and industry specific affiliates like The Upstate Alliance, GADC and SCAerospace…we saw good things happening and felt this would be the right environment for our investment and continued growth.

We had a lot of good support from Charleston in the investigation process, but the options just were not the best for us.

With all of your aerospace certifications in place, you are primed to enter the state’s aerospace ecosystem, is there anything holding you back?

As you note, AS9100 and Nadcap quality systems are in place as well as the team required to drive these systems in support of the aerospace community in SC and the region.

The commitments we had prior to coming to Greenville were a big part of this decision making process for us though as this is a key part of any start-up that will be focusing on providing services to the aerospace community

Your proximity to Boeing’s location in Charleston is a logistical bonus for them because? Can you put a dollar sign on it?

 Logistical benefit is probably the easiest of the many benefits to see.  Simply stated, it’s the difference in time and money between sending to a local/regional source vs. sending to a source as far away as the Pacific Northwest or Southern California.

If you are sending freight on a weekly basis via LTL from SC to CA and you are now sending that same freight in state, the difference can be tens of thousands of dollars in freight costs alone.

We hear a lot of economic development buzz relating Boeing’s growth and potential supplier growth similar to what happened with BMW, or the “BMW Effect”. What are your thoughts about its similarities and differences to the “Boeing effect”?

I believe this is a valid statement; Solar is a good example of a company who wouldn’t be here if we didn’t believe it.

The large scale investment that Boeing is making in SC along with the state support to create an infrastructure and environment where businesses can see themselves thriving makes people more seriously consider investment that might otherwise exit discussion as quickly as it enters.

I believe the success of the automotive manufacturing industry in SC has lent credibility to the state’s ability to facilitate this type of effect again.  The rest becomes the responsibility of those of us in the aerospace industry, but with 17 aerospace companies deciding to come to SC since the beginning of 2015, the momentum continues to build and the presence of each company helps the other present more value as an aerospace cluster.

Are there gaps in the global aerospace supply chain? If so, will suppliers relocating to the region and to South Carolina help fill those gaps?

It’s safe to say there is no end to opinion here, but there is very unique manufacturing capability coming to SC.  From carbon fiber technologies rooted in support of the 787 to the very unique vertically integrated manufacturing capability GKN is bringing to the table in Orangeburg in support of the 737 MAX and 777-X, the SC aerospace manufacturing community has the potential to bring real value to the global market.

Boeing’s engineering centers for design and propulsion also show a focus on their infrastructure to support future aircraft which shows a commitment to SC as a region that is a part of Boeing’s long term plan for more than one aircraft platform.  Those things considered, I think there is very real potential for a fully developed SC aerospace community to bring real value to the global aerospace supply chain.

What are your thoughts for new supplier growth in South Carolina?  Do you anticipate more companies locating to the state, especially now that important support resources such as heat treating are available locally?

I am a firm believer that more aerospace companies will locate in the region.  As the aerospace cluster in SC grows so does our ability to support additional manufacturing capability.  The business case only gets better when special processes that support the industry (like Nadcap Accredited Vacuum Heat Treating) are available within the region.

We understand you are well positioned to support Boeing with metal heat treating to their specifications.  However you are not too far away from Airbus in Alabama as well.  Do you plan to support them as well?

Solar’s goal with our facility in Greenville has always been to present value to those requiring vacuum heat treating services in the U.S. Southeast.   We have always stated that we believe Greenville, SC to be a logistically convenient location and next day service via most LTL carriers to the Mobile, AL area is a good evidence of that.

We know that heat treat furnaces use a lot of energy in the process.  Can you describe the typical power consumption used in a typical heat treating cycle and how that relates to average personal home use for comparison? 

The average home in the US utilizes a little over 900 kWh of electricity / month.  Of course furnace sizes and types as well as the product being processed all have an impact on this number.  But based on some recent data used in analyzing our electricity usage, the average heat treating cycle would be the equivalent to about 2 months of electrical bills for the average US homeowner.

Your new facility will have some impressive treating capabilities for handling larger size metal parts, which means fairly heavy transportation requirements to and from your aerospace customers.  How important are the roads and bridge infrastructure to your business logistics? 

As you note, Solar has a 24 foot long vacuum furnace in Greenville capable of processing up to 50,000 lbs. in a single furnace cycle.  Our sister facility in Hermitage, PA is home of the largest commercial vacuum furnace at 36 feet long and is currently building a 48 foot long furnace now, so the processing of large furnace loads is something we are familiar with at Solar.

Most of what we process does not require more than what can be handled via an oversized load via truck freight, but transportation infrastructure is and was a big factor in our site selection.  We believe we have what we need in Greenville and the Upstate of SC in general.

What areas of improvement would you recommend our state legislators prioritize to ensure businesses like yours can continue to grow and thrive?  Are there any high priority needs that if not addressed could hinder your progress?

Things that come to mind are workforce development efforts through the Technical College system, funding for manufacturing development organizations like SCMEP but also creating and maintaining avenues for these companies to interact and be heard such as the SC Aerospace effort that is currently taking shape.  I believe these types of efforts are critical to planning for the future while staying responsive to today’s needs.

There are many sophisticated process controls when heat treating aerospace materials.  Can you describe the workforce and training needs for your operation?  What kind of various roles will be employed and what types of skills are you looking for?

Our workforce needs have changed over the years and technology has been the real catalyst in this process.  As automation and plc control have taken root a furnace operator has become a person who still needs to understand the process they are charged with performing, but they now need to be able to understand the control systems that will implement those changes with today’s furnace controls.

Having employees that understand how to interact with plc control systems, have had some exposure to programming while not losing all of the necessary manufacturing “know how” such as metrology, understanding the importance of instrument calibrations as well as the role they play in supporting the various quality systems that must be maintained is key.

Of course, this is simply the example of a furnace operator, but a typical Solar facility will have a variety of positions from those supporting equipment operation, to Quality Technicians supporting laboratory inspections, process verification and certification to maintenance roles supporting mechanical, electrical and pyrometric furnace performance.

Each of these roles require a lot of training and most include training progressions that take years to progress through rather than weeks or months.

The shortage of skilled workforce is a hot topic in our state.  How does Solar Atmospheres plan to obtain the talented employees needed?  Do you employ any partnerships for workforce training?  If so can you elaborate?

Greenville represents the 3rd expansion for Solar and our 4th commercial heat treating facility.  As such, we have embraced this challenge before and we have training programs in place to address training needs, our Nadcap and AS9100 accreditations actually require this as well.

We also recognize that there will always be the need to provide process specific training.  Heat Treating is a niche business and very rarely do you find someone who already has the knowledge and experience we will need.

That said, finding employees that have solid math and reasoning skills, understand basic manufacturing concepts and have had exposure to control systems can be a challenge.

I see some good potential in support through our Tech College system and programs such as Greenville Works to provide people with an avenue to obtain these skill sets.  I also see efforts to implement and improve STEM curriculum within the school systems.  These things together are encouraging, but focus must be maintained to have a real impact.  I see these types of efforts as the real answer.

As Boeing rolls out the 787-10 and continues to increase the production rates over the next two years, how will this translate into growth for Solar Atmospheres?  Do you anticipate the need for further expansion as the 787 production rate increase to 14 and 16 per month eventually?

Currently, the primary support of the 787 program for Solar is being handled out of our Hermitage, PA facility.  Although our Fontana, CA facility is also Boeing approved, the Hermitage facility processes every titanium seat track that goes into a 787 within their 36 foot long vacuum furnace.

At the moment, they are producing 12 ship sets per month, roughly equivalent to three miles of seat track.  They are currently installing a 48 foot vacuum furnace, the largest commercial vacuum furnace in the world, and one of the express purposes is to support the 787 program and the need to process seat tracks that are longer those currently processed in our 36 foot furnace.

So we are already expanding to support the 787 program and now look forward to how we can support future growth with the addition of the Greenville, SC facility.

What do you think the total power use will be for Solar Atmospheres by 2020 and how will you ensure your power needs are met?

 Of course, this was a big factor in our site selection process, we had to ensure we would have the required infrastructure available to us as we respond to a market that we anticipate will continue to grow at the rate that it has been.

If specific projects develop we are discussing today, our power use could double.   Having a partner like Duke Power with the ability and commitment to support those types of forecasts was extremely important.

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