Janicki's innovative molds change engineering of superyachts, jets
Dogged engineer Peter Janicki invented a better mold, and now builders of jets and superyachts beat a path to his rural Skagit Valley door.
Seattle Times aerospace reporter
SEDRO-WOOLLEY — Quaint storefronts and a red-brick clock tower beckon mountain-bound tourists to stop in this small town. But a humming factory complex on the outskirts is what draws intense attention from manufacturers around the world.
Strange, bulky objects sit in an industrial yard, many shrouded in white plastic wrap. These massive cylinders and half-pipes are monuments to one man's stubborn insistence that he can out-engineer almost anyone.
Peter Janicki, third-generation scion of a pioneer logging family, is founder and chief executive of fast-growing Janicki Industries, which supplies one-of-a-kind manufacturing molds for billionaires' superyachts and fuselages for Boeing's new 787.
In a county where the other big employers are a casino and a chicken processor, 500-employee Janicki Industries is Sedro-Woolley's Boeing and Microsoft rolled into one.
Yet it employs more than top-notch engineers.
Professional background: Founder, president and chief executive of Janicki Industries. He leads company research and development. Undergraduate degree in engineering from Notre Dame, master's in mechanical engineering from University of Washington.
Personal: He's 42, married with five sons, and lives on a 40-acre farm where he keeps sheep, horses and pheasants. For recreation, he plows his fields using draft horses.
Future plans: Refining the automated processes on current projects. Also working an ambitious project to develop solid fuel steam engines that could run buses, trucks and cars.
The Janicki clan: Peter's immigrant grandfather established a family logging business after World War I. Two brothers, Mike and Rob, run the logging and construction business and various real-estate development projects in Skagit Valley. Another brother, John, runs the business side of Janicki Industries. Sister-in-law Lisa is chief financial officer of both Janicki Industries and the logging company. Family matriarch Ann Janicki also keeps a close eye on the business.
Source: Peter Janicki
Here, former logging-crew chiefs, who once grappled with tree trunks, now supervise the lifting of enormous plastic molds. Former dairy farmers operate computer-controlled milling tools instead of milking machines.
"They know how to make stuff. They know how to hit stuff with a hammer," Janicki said. "Put those people together with a group of people that have a lot of science and math and ... you can make really cool new stuff."
An intense 42-year-old with George Clooney looks, Janicki has more cool stuff on the drawing board, including a modernized steam engine that he hopes will someday power eco-friendly cars and buses.
For Boeing, Janicki Industries provides a crucial piece of the global jigsaw puzzle that is the 787 production plan: drum-shaped molds around which carbon-fiber fabric will be wrapped and hardened to form the composite-plastic fuselage sections of the 787. The molds are built in such an innovative way that Boeing won't let visitors see them.
For the super-rich at play, Janicki molds shape high-end, high-tech yachts. At the America's Cup races next summer in Spain, Janicki's work will be on display in the sleekly contoured, composite hulls of two Oracle BMW yachts racing for software billionaire Larry Ellison, a repeat customer. The yachts — one completed, the second still under construction — were built in nearby Anacortes, mainly to be close to Janicki Industries.
What: A 500-employee supplier of manufacturing equipment to Boeing, yacht manufacturers and others.
Where: Sedro- Woolley, in Skagit County.
Expertise: Designs and builds tools and molds made from advanced composite plastics that will be used for construction of complex composite plastic structures.
Showcase projects: Created the molds used to build America's Cup superyachts owned by billionaires Larry Ellison and Craig McCaw. Now producing the molds that Boeing partner Vought will use to build the rear fuselage sections of the 787.
Sales: $56 million this year.
Source: Janicki Industries
Others call on the company's expertise, too.
Janicki technician Jake Hockett, just two years out of Mount Vernon High School, was recently dispatched to aid engineers at aerospace giant Northrop Grumman in Southern California.
At Janicki he'd learned to use a laser radar scanner to measure components 80 feet long to an accuracy of 5/1,000ths of an inch. That skill enabled him to precisely size the contoured fabric that will be stretched across the tennis-court-sized sun shield of the James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled to launch in 2013.
Emulating his immigrant grandfather, who established a successful family logging business in Sedro-Woolley after World War I, Peter Janicki built his engineering firm from nothing.
Janicki drove logging trucks and bulldozers from the age of 12. After studying automated manufacturing at the University of Washington, he was handpicked out of college to join Electroimpact of Everett, an advanced aerospace-engineering company that builds major assembly tooling for Airbus.
But Janicki's roots ran too deep in Skagit County. "I just wasn't interested in living in the city," Janicki said. Today he lives on a 40-acre farm and raises his five boys among the extended Janicki clan.
A half-dozen Janicki siblings and in-laws run various thriving family businesses, which also include logging, construction and real-estate interests. The whole clan gathers every Monday to talk business, joined by family matriarch, Ann Janicki, 76.
Janicki Industries' sales have grown sevenfold in five years to $56 million this year, said Chief Financial Officer Lisa Janicki, Peter's sister-in-law.
A new way to build boats
When Janicki came home in the early 1990s, how a top engineer could create a business way out in the country wasn't crystal clear. He started with boats.
His entrepreneurial brain clicked into gear when a truck hauling a fiberglass boat pulled up ahead of him at an intersection. Wondering how the complex curvature of the boat hull was crafted, he visited the Bayliner boat-building workshop in nearby Arlington.
There, hundreds of artisans slowly and methodically sculpted, sanded and planed a master "pattern" out of foam, wood and auto-body filler into the needed shape. Around that, a plastic mold for mass-producing the boats was formed.
Janicki told Bayliner he could program a robot to carve those patterns much more quickly. Bayliner, he recalled, rejected the idea as too costly and "too space-age for us."
Undeterred, Janicki persuaded his family to put up $25,000. He bought a decade-old computerized milling machine from GE's jet-engine division in Albuquerque, New Mexico, dismantled it and hauled it to Sedro-Woolley.
The electronics were hopelessly dated, so he "cut the cables and just pushed the computer into the garbage can." Then he hooked up the machine to a PC, hired a software engineer to write the controls and called Bayliner: Did they have any rush jobs he could do?
He machined the pattern for his first boat hull in a week. The work would have taken Bayliner three to five months.
Janicki soon found customers across the United States. The technique swept the industry and is now used by every major boat builder in the world.
Pat Walker, the industrial designer at Bayliner who first showed Janicki around the Arlington boat shop, said Janicki pushed the idea of automation to a scale others hadn't, machining molds for hulls up to 80 feet long.
As John Hartmann, vice president at Electroimpact, put it: "His magic is these very large machines he's built himself."
Peter Janicki's stubborn nature triumphed over conventional engineering wisdom in winning the Boeing work, too.
Defense contractors began making military-jet fuselages out of reinforced plastic materials in the 1980s.
The molds they've always used are made of an expensive and heavy iron-nickel alloy that keeps its shape inside the high-pressure oven so the fuselage isn't distorted.
Early experiments with molds made instead out of composite plastic — the same material as the part the mold is shaping — proved "a disaster of epic proportions," Janicki said. After a few runs, the plastic tools leaked.
"It's one of the reasons the B-2 bomber cost a couple of billion dollars a pop," Janicki said. "Everyone involved said they would never go back to composite tools again."
The metal molds — "hard tools," in industry parlance — became the standard. But Janicki, convinced that plastic or "soft" tools could be cheaper and easier to use, around 1997 started a full-scale research program to improve them.
"I'm pretty sure we were the only people in the world working on this problem," he said.
His brother, John, recalls that multiple phone calls to Boeing Commercial Airplanes brought an unequivocal response: "We will never buy soft tooling."
But in 2003, Boeing decided its next commercial jet, the 787, would be the first composite plastic airliner. The new jet would need new tools — and Janicki won a contract.
"We've been moving toward different, more flexible manufacturing systems. We want to be able to move tools around," said Al Miller, Boeing's director of advanced technology on the 787 program. "Being really big and heavy isn't a virtue any more."
Dominating the floor inside the newest building on the Janicki site is a giant black tool, shaped like a spool for cotton thread — but 20 feet in diameter and 50 feet long. To shield the detail from the eyes of curious visitors recently, workers draped the tool in white plastic sheeting.
Janicki will attach large curved composite sections to this inner spool to create a cylindrical barrel-shaped mold, or mandrel.
One of Boeing's 787 partners, Vought, will use this particular mold to build the 787's rear fuselage. The builders of other fuselage sections in Japan and Italy have chosen to use the metal molds — more costly and four times heavier. But both are studying Vought's outcome closely and could switch to composites for later 787 models.
Janicki's engineers have tested their molds through the equivalent of 750 cycles in the 350º ovens, and are convinced the reliability issue is solved.
"We believe our tools will outlast the program," Janicki said. "They will not wear out."
Boeing acknowledged this summer that one prototype fuselage section had to be scrapped after a Janicki-built mandrel leaked.
Mike Bair, 787 program chief, insisted Janicki wasn't at fault. Bair said the glitch occurred as Boeing and Janicki experimented with different resin mixes to make the composite plastic more durable.
In addition, Peter Janicki said, a supplier substituted ingredients in the resin used to make that mandrel without notifying him. Janicki has so far shipped eight mandrels, and that was the only problematic one.
"It was painful for Boeing and certainly painful for us," Janicki said of the incident. "It's a great way to build an airplane. But it's new. And you don't do something new perfect every time."
He said prying the mandrel away from the fuselage after the leak took immense force — "If that had been an aluminum airplane, we would have permanently destroyed it."
But the composite plastic "looked like it had not been touched... I have never seen a structural material that was as tough and indestructible as what they are building that airplane out of."
Learning from mistakes
To Janicki, mistakes are for learning. He decries managers "whose No. 1 mission in life is not to mess anything up."
It's part of the entrepreneurial, problem-solving attitude he picked up as a youngster from his late father, Stanley.
"I didn't hang out with the cool kids," Peter said. "My dad was far more fun than kids could be."
When things went wrong in the logging business — two of his dump trucks collided disastrously, or a piece of expensive equipment fell off the edge of a logging road — his father, rather than chewing out the already-dejected crew, would roll up his sleeves and help fix it, Peter said.
For his sons, too, there was never a penalty for failure. "He allowed us to do a lot of things. We messed up. We broke things. We destroyed equipment. We felt bad and we learned," Peter said. "There was only a penalty for not trying to move forward."
Within a half dozen years, Janicki will likely have "significant competition" in its aerospace specialty, said Peter. "But we'll have invented five new things by then."
Beyond aerospace, what's in the pipeline?
"Research on energy," he said. "A lot of Americans want rid of our dependence on foreign oil."
Janicki is working now on building steam engines that could power buses, trucks and cars — fueled by pellets made from wood or yard waste.
"My dream is for Seattle to collect all of the yard waste in the city ... process it into pellets ... (and) put these pellets in steam-powered metro buses that I would make," he wrote in an e-mail.
Is this guy crazy?
"I am very serious," Janicki wrote. "I have done the math. It works."
Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or email@example.com.
Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Seattle Times researcher Gene Balk contributed to this story.