Aerospace materials testing fuels Unity firm’s expansion |
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Jeff Himler

Metal materials that could become part of a jet airplane have to be capable of enduring extremes of heat and pressure.

Product Evaluation Systems in Unity is a growing part of an industry that makes sure those critical building blocks meet required standards of strength and durability. As PES marks its 40th anniversary, the company is planning to expand its Donohoe Road plant and its workforce.

“The aerospace market is really strong now,” company President Walt Moorhead said. “That’s probably the majority of our business.”

Geographically, the company’s customers range from the East Coast to Texas to British Columbia, Canada. While PES doesn’t usually test items for jet manufacturers, it does provide that service for companies that supply materials or components used to produce such aircraft.

“We’re dealing with local mills that produce stainless steels, titaniums, aluminums, specialty nickel alloys,” Moorhead said. “We never know what’s coming in the doors next.

“Somebody sends us the material. They tell us what the testing parameters are, we do the testing, and we report the results. A lot of times we don’t know what the exact parts or the final application is going to be.”

In addition to offices, the company’s 18,000-square-foot building houses a metallurgical laboratory, machine shop and facilities for mechanical, chemical and non-destructive testing — the latter applied to finished parts that are intended to be usable after the PES analysis is complete.

Moorhead hopes by early May to break ground on a second, 12,000-square-foot building that will provide more room for computer-controlled machining and mechanical testing equipment.

“It’s expanding our existing capabilities,” Moorhead said of the additional space. “You’re simulating a test, sometimes at high temperature, for an extended period of time to see how the material will react.”

Two types of procedures the company conducts are fatigue testing, which verifies the life span of an item before it needs to be replaced, and fracture toughness testing, which measures a material’s resistance to crack growth, according to Tom Blair, technical director of materials testing.

One recent test subjected a metal sample to temperatures of up to 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit and stress of up to 100,000 pounds per square inch.

“We’re also looking at the micro-structure of the material to make sure it’s heat-treated properly,” Moorhead said.

One local client is TSI Titanium of Derry, which uses PES for tensile and internal structural testing of titanium bar products it makes for the aerospace industry.

“Even though that industry is on the West Coast, we’re very fortunate in this area to have two highly competent materials testing labs, of which PES is one,” said Mark Sobota, executive vice president of quality assurance at TSI Titanium.

Boeing has been ramping up production of its aircraft, Sobota said, noting, “That trickles down to the raw materials.”

As a result, he said, “Our business has grown 100 percent over the past five years, and PES has played an important part in that. We cannot ship until we satisfy the requirements of aerospace qualification. Every bar that we make has to meet strength minimums.”

Some of the material PES tests for TSI might end up in an airplane hydraulic system, while others could be destined for medical applications, Sobota said.

The oil and gas and power generation industries also provide business for PES.

Additive manufacturing, a term for 3-D printing of component or products, accounts for a growing segment of the company’s business, Moorhead said, noting PES has tested hundreds of such materials.

“It’s a market that’s going to explode, from what we can see,” he said. “They can print just about anything out of metal nowadays. It’s like an ink-jet printer. It’s just whizzing back and forth and it’s laying down layers of (titanium) powder, and it’s molten metal that it’s laying down.”

In addition to its private clientele, PES for about three years has conducted testing of 3-D-printed metal materials for the Penn State Applied Research Laboratory, a university-affiliated center that conducts research and supplies items for the defense industry.

Abdalla Nassar, assistant research professor, said the laboratory uses PES because “they can do odd or custom jobs with a lot of flexibility.

“We produce samples and they test them. They pull it and measure where it fails and can evaluate the chemistry of the material to make sure it’s in line with what the customer expects.”

The PES expansion is possible because the Unity Township Municipal Authority received a $425,000 state grant to help extend municipal sewage service along Buffenmeyer Road to the section of Donohoe Road where the plant is located.

Moorhead hopes to tap into the municipal sewer line next fall. PES and neighboring businesses each are expected to chip in $50,000 for the project, as is the authority.

Starting operations in 1979 in space leased from Tooling Specialists, a machine shop in the Lloydsville area of Unity, PES moved to its current site in 1994 and built an addition in 2004.

“This is kind of the third phase of our growth,” Moorhead said, noting the company’s employee roster has grown from seven in 2001 to about 40. Once the latest expansion is complete, he expects that number to increase to more than 50.

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