Leading Edge Aerospace is a small company doing big things.
The Wichita-based tooling manufacturer had a key role on Textron AirLand’s new military airplane, the Scorpion.
The company built the composite tooling for the plane’s wing, wing spars, vertical and horizontal tail, fuselage components and the sidewalls of the payload bay.
The twin-engine Scorpion, an intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and strike aircraft, was built inside a Cessna facility in west Wichita. The plane is now undergoing flight testing and passed 60 hours of flight testing this week.
Leading Edge Aerospace, 1360 S. Anna, added a massive oven and a five-axis computer numerical control machine to take on the work.
In January, it added a CNC machine to handle carbon graphite parts up to 50 feet.
“(Leading Edge) has some innovative tooling concepts,” said Dale Tutt, Textron AirLand’s chief engineer on the Scorpion project. “The tools were more affordable and (were) able to be produced in a shorter period of time than similar type of tooling concepts.”
Its processes eliminated many of the steps typically needed to make the tooling.
“Our wing is one piece,” Tutt said. “The tool is 50 feet long.”
Time and cost were especially important with the Scorpion’s fast-paced schedule.
It’s one of the fastest developments of a U.S.-built tactical jet. The project progressed from an initial design to first flight in less than 24 months.
“We were operating as a very small, lean team here and working through different challenges and different problems,” Tutt said. “They (Leading Edge) were a small ... team that was flexible and could quickly change and adapt with us. From our perspective, it was a very positive working relationship.”
Leading Edge Aerospace was formed in 1998 by owner and president Stan Unruh, a former farmer.
Unruh, 61, took over his family’s farm at 16 after the death of his father.
He ran custom cutting and cattle and wheat operations. Unruh and his wife also operated a restaurant in Harper called the French Roll.
A downturn in commodity prices and long hours eventually led the couple to sell their home, equipment and operations, turn the land over to renters and change careers.
Unruh’s wife went back to school and became a math teacher. Unruh started working as a trainee at Plastic Fabricating.
There he met other former farmers who became his mentors.
“They put me under their wing and taught me a lot about machining and composite manufacturing,” Unruh said.
He went on to work for Three Way Pattern and Burnham Products.
In the meantime, Unruh began building tooling out of the couple’s duplex.
“You follow what’s in your spirit and in your heart,” Unruh said.
In 1998, he rented 1,200 square feet of space and formed the company.
Leading Edge now employs 20 and has operations in four buildings totaling 32,000 square feet of space in southwest Wichita.
Two of its biggest customers are Spirit AeroSystems and Cessna Aircraft.
Its biggest growth has taken place in the past year and a half, Unruh said. The most rapid growth has been in composite tooling. That’s where the company has invested the most, Unruh said.
More and more, aircraft manufacturers are using composites when they build new aircraft.
“That’s the way of the future,” Unruh said.
That led Leading Edge to research and develop the process for fabricating a high-quality graphite tool, Unruh said. It took two years of research and work to become qualified. “It’s a complicated process,” Unruh said. “We had to step out. We see the market being a larger scale.”
Adding equipment to build and trim composite parts up to 50 feet long gives Leading Edge more capabilities. Before, the company could make tooling measuring only 16 to 20 feet long.
“There’s an open market for that,” Unruh said. “There’s a lack of people in the industry to do that type of work.”
The company is working to grow its business in making prototype and production quality tooling.
Other projects are in the works for tools measuring nearly 50 feet long.
Leading Edge Aerospace also builds aluminum tooling for the aerospace industry.
Another niche is laser tracking, using laser beam technology to verify the accuracy of designs through three-dimensional measuring.
“That turned into a great business for us,” Unruh said. “We do that nationally.”
And it designs and builds jigs and fixtures to customer specifications.
Unruh’s goal is to grow the business and help the Wichita economy by adding employees.
Besides aerospace, Leading Edge is looking toward the yacht industry for future work.
“We’re looking at trying to bring that technology in what we do with the aircraft into the higher end (of yachts),” Unruh said.
Working on the Scorpion has been beneficial.
“It put us into the big world arena with big tools,” Unruh said.
Leading Edge also learned a lot about scheduling and manufacturing required to build a composite aircraft, he said.
The company and Textron AirLand worked closely together.
Meeting the Scorpion’s tight schedule was a challenge, said Rod Brown, Leading Edge Aerospace research and development and composite manager.
“They were ramping up and learning as quickly as we were,” Brown said.
Leading Edge took the Scorpion designs to fabricate the tools.
There were learning curves to come up with the final part that worked best.
Unruh’s enthusiam was refreshing, said Tutt of Textron AirLand.
“Stan, every step of the way, he was so excited about it,” Tutt said. “Every couple of weeks, we’d get a little video of improvements he was making to his facility.”
For Brown and Unruh, the most satisfying part of the Scorpion project was the final result: seeing the Scorpion parked at the end of the runway ready for first flight.
For a company the size of Textron AirLand “coming to us and entrusting us with this amount of work ... seeing it come together and then seeing it at the end of the runway when it took off was a success of rapid engineering and development from drawing board to flight,” Unruh said.
That gave him hope for the future.
“It gave me more of a vision of the future for our company and the hope of success in that,” Unruh said.