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AOTCO - Manufacturing In Focus Interview

The finishing materials for aircraft components, missiles, spacecraft and satellites are mission-critical in aerospace operations. Without that fine, protective coating, millions of dollars’ worth of technology might never get off the ground. This article was originally published in Manufacturing In Focus in April 2022.

The masking, electroplating and anodizing processes are essential to give components thermal stability, low density and an engineered degree of flexibility in extreme conditions – like blasting through the Earth’s atmosphere to explore space.

That’s where AOTCO Metal Finishing comes in, a company dedicated to putting the final touches on parts for its manufacturing partners who supply leading corporations and government agencies around the world. And not just for aerospace: the metal plating processes also play an important role in optical, electronics, telecommunications, fuel cell and medical technology.

“What’s so cool about this, and what gets me out of bed in the morning, is that we are part of many of the most important technologies both for today and the future,” says Matthew Smith, President of AOTCO, “whether that be space exploration, national defense, quantum computing, sustainable energy or electronics. We are helping people working on cutting-edge technology in all those fields to do their job.”

This means a strict adherence to customer requirements and industry regulations, as well as developing custom solutions with rapid turnaround times. Hence the appropriate company name: AOTCO stands for the “Always On Time COmpany.” It’s been delivering high precision, top-quality work for 75 years, headquartered in Massachusetts, with a growing global customer base.

Smith, at the helm since 2018 when he partnered with investors to acquire AOTCO as a private-equity portfolio company, led an established team to achieve the company’s best performing year in 2019. He has extensive experience in business development and international sales for both software and heavy equipment manufacturers. He also helped his wife start a nationally recognized children’s optical and optometry practice, where he handled the marketing, IT and general handyman duties.

Clearly, he relishes rolling up his sleeves and getting things done.

The success at AOTCO, he says, has a lot to do with building on a corporate commitment to customer service and then taking it to the next level.

“The first part is we solve problems,” he says. “The second part is once we have that solved, we’re able to consistently deliver a very high level of quality and kind of bend over backwards to make sure the parts get done on time. We make it easy for customers, and they know they can rely on us and get their questions answered. No frustrations.”

The company also stands out from the competition by working with pure beryllium and beryllium alloys, used extensively as a structural material in aerospace because it’s very lightweight and has thermal characteristics that perform well in the vagaries of space. It can be blast furnace-hot on one side and arctic-cold on the other, and the material is able to withstand those harsh conditions and fluctuating temperatures without failure.

Beryllium is expensive and can be a dangerous material to handle, so only highly experienced manufacturers like AOTCO, with the right protocols and experienced craftspeople, make use of it for niche markets. The company also offers processing using a proprietary black finish designed with light-absorbing capabilities for space tech and optical work with lasers and cameras.

“The space industry is really a fundamental part of our business and we’ve been a part of that since the founding of the company,” Smith says. “We have very close relationships with many of the leading companies, both primary and subcontractors, and it’s a focus for growth.” To that end, you’ll find AOTCO at the Space Tech Expo in Long Beach, California this May, showcasing its range of metal plating finishes and engineering know-how.

It is this engineering and technical expertise that delivers in a big way for customers. Most come to AOTCO because they’re either in the midst of developing a new technology or they’re trying to solve a problem they’ve had with an existing process. The AOTCO team is all about rising to the challenge.

“We have industry experts in diverse areas and we also have invested a lot in our engineering department for development capabilities and research and development pilots. And we’re able, in many cases, to help companies with the kind of problem-solving that they can’t get elsewhere.”

Case in point, Smith talks about an aerospace customer who came in with some parts involving complex geometry. These parts needed to be selectively plated – certain parts plated with different materials rather than uniformly plated. “The customer was having trouble because, if you can imagine something that has a lot of angles on its corners, it’s very hard to get it precisely applied when you’re putting it into the chemical bath and putting electric plating on it,” he explains. “It’s hard to get it where you want it and not where you don’t want it. And we were able to take an innovative approach that allowed us to get the consistent quality much better than they’d ever been able to get before – at a production level of quality.”

That kind of innovation and custom work goes a long way to promoting AOTCO’s reputation for helping companies get the designed part characteristics with the consistent quality needed for the specific application. Companies can reduce their quality rejects, save on time and other efficiencies and, most importantly, produce for their clients. It’s great team-building through the entire supply chain, and it’s the stuff that cements long-lasting customer relationships.

What’s challenging for AOTCO these days? As an experienced custom shop, master technicians are at the forefront. But as this skilled cohort gets closer to retirement, recruiting and training the next generation is a priority.

“Historically, it has been an art,” Smith explains. “You have people who worked for decades and became masters and then as new people came in, they’d have to apprentice and learn over a number of years. So the talents of these multiple-decade masters of plating is shrinking as those people retire and leave the industry. We’re trying to bring together the remaining experts and train the next generation so that we can preserve all of the knowledge that’s been built up.”

That kind of recruitment is happening through industry conferences, college partnerships and in-house apprenticeship programs. And it’s all playing into the vision for AOTCO’s future.

As Smith puts it, “I’m seeing the excitement of our original team and the younger generation of newer people on board, bringing new ideas, creativity and innovation to this business. That’s going to move us forward. It’s been really satisfying to see that.”