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Centra’s Aerostructure Business Soars in Cambridge

A guest blog from The City of Cambridge, Economic Development

When you think of traditional manufacturing, one might conjure up visions of a huge automated process that cranks out thousands, if not millions of widgets each day at the facility. However, for Centra Industries, a state-of-the-art manufacturer of aerostructure components and assemblies, the volumes are low and the precision is high.

Based in Cambridge, Ontario, Centra is a world class maker of precision aerostructure components and assemblies.  They have unique technology in North America and specialize in three areas: Multi-Axis High Velocity machining of complex aluminum structures; Multi-Axis High Torque machining of specialty hard to machine aircraft alloys such as titanium, Inconel and hardened steels; and assembly of major aircraft sub-structures. They are also considered to have one of the largest deployments of high speed machining technology in the world.

“It’s tremendously complex to design a manufacturing process and effectively repeat it,” says David McIntyre, President of Centra Industries.  “We set up and tear down automated systems every single day,” with high performance execution to deliver quality products used in the commercial and military aerospace sector. There’s significant technology employed along with research and development (R&D) around processing mechanics, automation of manufacturing, information management and the overall execution.

Centra uses a suite of sophisticated information technology tools to manage day-to-day operations that include mature ERP installation, data mining tools, business event management tools and KPI dashboards with real time updates.  When asked if McIntyre represents an advanced manufacturing company or a technology enterprise, he quickly replies “you can’t be an advanced manufacturer and not be a tech company!”

Founded as a tool and die company in 1974, Centra was originally based in Waterloo. It purchased land in Cambridge in 1997 with a view to amalgamate operations and by the late 1990s had shifted its focus solely on the aerospace industry. Located on Cherry Blossom Road within the Cambridge Business Park, the company is strategically situated close to Canada’s busiest thoroughfare, highway 401; and is in close proximity to other world class companies such as Toyota Motor Manufacturing Canada and Research In Motion. Since establishing in Cambridge, the facility has expanded twice to meet the growing operational demands, once in 2004 and again in 2007.

“The business park is ideally situated at the juncture of main transportation arteries and swift access to the US border points for product movement,” says McIntyre.  In 2010, Centra purchased the 60,000 square-foot facility next door and invested significantly to entirely retrofit it to bring in the environmental controls, electrical and other clean features required for precision manufacturing.

Innovation is ‘sparked’ by capital investments according to McIntyre.  He notes his company has invested more than $30 million over the last few years in capital programs.  He anticipates another $25-30 million in new capital expenditures in the next few years, including a planned expansion in Cambridge.  The new building will serve as an infrastructure facility finishing-off the automated processes for the uniquely positioned company.

When other manufacturing firms were negatively impacted by the recessionary factors in the world economy, Centra Industries continued to realize strong growth.  McIntyre suggests that the aerospace sector wasn’t as hard hit as those in the traditional manufacturing sectors, however, says the shifting dynamics and nature of this business is a factor he is paying close attention to.  “The globalization of airplane production to places in low cost environments is a development that could impact our business.”  He also contends that displacement technology such as high speed machining has changed the competitive landscape.

“We are a globally focused, integrated aerostructures company and leaders in our class for the type of service we provide,” he says.  This means delivering competitively priced products is important; however innovation must be and is at the core of this firm’s philosophy. Customers not only want exceptional value and integrity in their partners, but they need to know that suppliers will help them maintain a competitive position for many years to come.

Sharing a commitment to performance excellence with the firms in which it supplies products isn’t just a saying at Centra Industries, it’s ingrained in everything they do.  Centra was recognized by Bombardier in 2010 for its product excellence and was the first ‘five star’ certified supplier to receive the prestigious ‘Bombardier Achieving Supplier Excellence’ (BASE) award.  The BASE award recognizes the strategic contribution of exceptional Bombardier suppliers and is evaluated on fact-based standards using a transparent measurement methodology to ensure fairness and predictability.

Centra is AS9100 certified which means it adheres to the internationally recognized quality management standards specifically written for the aerospace industry.  This involves a heavy set of rules around configuration management, design phase and verification, validation, production, numerical controls, testing processes, reliability, maintainability and safety, just to name a few.   This also means a significant investment in training for Centra Industries.

While there is tremendous access to post secondary talent in Waterloo Region and Centra brings on about a dozen cooperative education students each semester in areas such as engineering, quality control and skilled trades, McIntyre says there is still more customized training that is required for his workforce to deliver the excellence for which they are known.  A diverse team of over 400 employees with expectations of growing by another 100 over the next year, the staff complement is made up of a variety of people including Ph.D. level engineers, quality engineers, automation specialists, technicians, skilled trades, information management and purchasing professionals.

“We hire people with the base skills and invest in training programs to help them excel in our multifaceted environment,” says McIntyre who joined the company in 1992.

When McIntyre took the helm, the company offered a diversity of services.  “At that time our aerospace business accounted for about 30-40 percent of our overall sales.  Today, it’s the entire corporate focus.”

A director on the Ontario Aerospace Council, a not-for-profit, non-share capital corporation representing all segments of the Ontario aerospace industry, McIntyre is among a prestigious group of individuals representing companies such as Bombardier Commercial Aircraft, Pratt & Whitney, Honeywell, Magellan Aerospace, TFI and Goodrich Landing Gear.  He also works with Industry Canada and is very positive about the support that the Canadian Government gives through the Department of Foreign Affairs.

“We have defined business development targets that reach into Asia (Japan) and Europe and have benefitted from the trade commissioner services abroad.”  Most recently, Centra was awarded $2.3 million through the federal stimulus funding program.  The boost helped the company purchase new equipment and create even more highly skilled jobs in the local economy.

According to the Aerospace Industries Association of Canada, the national aerospace and space industries generate annual revenues of $22 billion and employ some 80,000 people in the workforce.  In Cambridge, there are more than 500 manufacturing enterprises and the area has a greater concentration of skilled labour in the manufacturing sector as compared to the national average. Cambridge is also home to COM DEV which has their technology deployed in over 80 percent of all commercial communications satellites ever launched throughout the world, and Strite Industries which delivers engineering and prototyping services for the manufacturing, research & scientific communities.

What’s on the horizon for Centra? While Centra is flying high in the aerospace sector, and has attained significant growth over the last two decades, the President says their goal is for continued growth of the business. “We offer a unique combination of technologies, the know-how to deploy these technologies and utilize these to tighten the control process.  We will continue to enhance the value added benefits to our customers by a continued focus on the expansion of high speed machining; investment in new technologies around hard metals, automation processes around assembly, and automated metal processes for finishing.”


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