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Sunday, August 01, 2004 - Page updated at 05:52 P.M.
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Peter Zieve stood up to Boeing and kept control of his invention

By Dominic Gates
Seattle Times aerospace reporter

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Peter Zieve founded Electroimpact upon technology he had developed as a graduate student at the University of Washington. To keep the rights to that technology, at a crucial moment he had to stand up to Boeing.

Yet even without the early support of his giant neighbor, his aerospace manufacturing business took off.

Though Zieve's engineering facilities in Mukilteo are just across Paine Field from Boeing's Everett assembly plant, Electroimpact made an international reputation by designing and building the high-tech factory equipment that supplies Airbus with wings.

Now even Boeing has come around to recognizing and using Zieve's sophisticated engineering services.

In 1983, Zieve had been accepted by Harvard, Stanford and Berkeley to do a doctorate in mechanical engineering. But attracted by a previous visit to the Pacific Northwest, he drove across country in a U-Haul truck from MIT in Boston to take a place at the UW.

He already had been a partner in one company back East, and all the way across the continent he thought about founding his own company — one that would have an innovative, informal culture, geared for engineers.

Zieve's UW research was partially funded by Boeing. Its engineers had invented a high-voltage electromagnetic riveter, which was proving problematic: it was hard to maintain and its operators were afraid of the high voltage. Zieve found a way to make the device low voltage and reliable.

In the middle of his doctorate, the university authorities summoned him to a meeting and asked him to give the UW the rights to the technology.

The university would then typically have granted Boeing exclusive rights to use it, said Jens Jorgensen, emeritus professor of mechanical engineering at UW, and one of two professors at the meeting.

"They put a piece of paper in front of me," Zieve recalled, "They wanted me to sign away the patent rights."
 
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Boeing funding

Having funded it, Boeing wanted more than the right to make use of Zieve's technology.

"Boeing felt they should have owned it," Zieve said.

Zieve refused to sign.

"Peter was willing to work with Boeing," Jorgensen recalled. "But they wanted to do it all themselves."

As Jorgensen sees it, Zieve was in the right. "It was his innovation," he said.

After graduating in 1986, Zieve served as a part-time research assistant professor of electrical engineering at UW for a couple of years. But his main focus was now Electroimpact, the company that grew from his invention.

Zieve's relations with Boeing remained cool for five or six years.

In that interim, Boeing's European nemesis Airbus saw the technology and adopted it.

Since then, Airbus has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on Electroimpact machines, which have now evolved beyond riveters to include such exotica as four-story-tall wing assembly jigs traversed by robotic drilling machines.

Eventually, even Boeing came around. When Boeing engineers invented another clever device called Flex-Track — another computer-controlled drilling machine that can track around a fuselage — and needed a company with the savvy to build it, they gave Zieve the license to produce nine for the F/A-22 Raptor fighter jet program.

Designer, builder

And having designed and built the equipment to manufacture the wings for Airbus's super-jumbo A380, Zieve's engineers are trying to persuade Boeing's Japanese suppliers to let them do the same for the 7E7, the wings of which will be built in Japan.

Invention remains the key to Electroimpact's success.

"It's not the big machines. It's the little brilliant stuff that only we can make, that nobody else knows how to do," Zieve said. "That's what allows us to sell the big stuff any clown can make."

Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or dgates@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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