Ace Clearwater has been providing aerospace customers with welded and formed metal assemblies for more than 60 years. The company has seen dramatic changes in the industry in Southern California, and has weathered these swings for decades. Its longevity has made it a resilient and experienced contender in a marketplace plagued by closures, budget cuts and wildly changing military allocations.
The Torrance, Calif.-based company has been under the direction of President Kellie Johnson since 1984 when she took the reins from her father, Tim Dodson. The future of Ace Clearwater was secured through Dodson’s ability to create a vertically integrated manufacturing enterprise. A true entrepreneur, Dodson was able to grow the small weld shop, which was started by his father-in-law in the 1950s, into a manufacturing powerhouse.
Johnson embraced her new position, but took a different approach to the business of doing business. Her focus for three decades has been to put the employees first, to educate the workforce, advocate for the industry and report to Congress the importance of the manufacturing health of the country.
“One day I was in the parking lot and realized our small family business enables our employees to buy new cars, pay their mortgages and put their kids through school,” Johnson remembers. “I thought, this was the right way to continue a family legacy, support an industry in which the United States has remained a global leader, and be able to provide amazing careers to so many awesome men and women. The things they make at Ace Clearwater every day help protect our nation, improve our quality of life and strengthen our economy – that’s what really inspired me to take the reins of the company.”
Ace Clearwater specializes in welding, machining, drop-hammer forming, hydro-forming and hydraulic forming for the aerospace and power generation markets. “We don’t have a proprietary product, but we build to our customers’ specifications,” Johnson explains. “We are basically a service organization. It’s really about pleasing our customers.”
A major challenge for the company – and many others like it – has been the decline in the number of skilled laborers, which is affecting its ability to compete. If the United States is to remain a manufacturing powerhouse, the industry must develop that talent pipeline, Johnson says.
“Most of our applicants have very little training and the education system is preparing everyone to go to college, which isn’t for everyone,” she adds. “We are dealing with an outdated perception and image problem associated with manufacturing because most people have no idea what advanced manufacturing looks like and how technology has transformed factory floors.”
To attract new talent, the company partners with a local community college to bring students into the factory regularly and get them excited about manufacturing, Johnson explains. “As difficult as it is to find welders, machinists or tool designers, imagine how hard it is to find drop-hammer specialists,” she adds. “The drop-hammer is old technology we continue to rely upon, which still uses rope to hold and release male and female dies to shape metal into complex forms. No schools teach that.”
Realizing the knowledge to operate machines like the drop-hammer will disappear as time goes on, Ace Clearwater brainstormed how it could most effectively and efficiently transfer that knowledge from one generation to the next.
To accomplish this, the company started its own production company that creates animated training videos.
“We see animation as the next step, beyond standard video, to teach complex manufacturing concepts using innovative modeling tools to create our virtual manufacturing environment,” Johnson explains. “Complex specifications and tight deadlines are standard requirements in manufacturing today and we are developing solutions targeted at improving company processes, driving innovation and transferring knowledge from generation to generation.”
Ace Clearwater has been building its training video library and receiving positive feedback from employees about its effectiveness.
To stay competitive, Ace Clearwater has embraced new technologies, which improve the quality of its components, the efficiencies of its production and the expansion of its capabilities. Recently, the company acquired an additive manufacturing 3-D printer to explore this new technology’s place in the aerospace production cycle.
Gary Johnson, Kellie’s husband and vice president, has been experimenting with Google Glass as a way to expand connectivity to the shop floor. “It’s not too far off when regular guys on the production floor can look into their headset and confirm an order, check a detail on a drawing or see the scheduling for that day,” he says. “We want to be at the forefront of that.”
During the past 15 years, Ace has been committed to expanding its plant with the ever-improving CNC, multiple-axis lathes, laser cutting capabilities and waterjet equipment to enhance the capabilities it offers. The company is also constantly improving and upgrading its ERP system and IT infrastructure for timely and accurate communication and decision-making capabilities.
It is all about continuous improvement and exceeding customer expectations for quality, delivery and cost. “We will continue to make investments in people, capabilities and facilities to stay competitive,” Kellie Johnson says. “Our vision is to be the very best in complex, formed and welded assemblies.”