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Cutting Edge Tech on the Rez

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Bigger isn’t always better. Arizona’s Tohono O’odham Nation covers some 2.8 million acres, only a small portion of which is occupied by the successful San Xavier District’s Hi:kdan Business Park. The tribally chartered, Native-owned private business operates under the banner: “Moving Forward with the Future.”

Housed in the shadows of Raytheon, the nearby giant missile manufacturer, the O’odham have done quite well for themselves with their 51 percent ownership of Advanced Ceramics Manufacturing (ACM)—a Native Small Disadvantaged Business providing “high tech products for a better world.”

Advanced Ceramics Manufacturing has developed and manufactured mandrel composite materials for the Sikorsky CH-53K Helicopter.

“We believe this partnership was a smart move and will open up other opportunities for clean industry,” says Hi:kdan Board President Austin Nunez. “The Development Authority wanted to bring in industry that would offer jobs for our people and at the same time encourage them to excel in the fields of science and math. We are a small park (23 acres) and are 70 percent occupied now. We’re hoping to expand to twice our current size within the next two years depending on the economy.”

Ed Biggers, who once directed the adjacent Raytheon operation, is now acting president and one of two minority owners of ACM who provides technological acumen to the 10-year-old firm held in high esteem by both the federal government and private industry. Among the recognized supporters are the National Science Foundation, NASA, the U.S. Navy, Boeing Aircraft (and 300 other aerospace customers).

“Certainly in the arena of ceramics, we’re on the cutting edge of a new wave of technology because we’re looking for things that don’t really exist right now,” he says. ACM’s research and development efforts in its 30,000-square-foot facility include work on development of ceramic tools for naval demolition teams. “This is a $797,000 government research contract to produce non-magnetic, non-conductive, non-sparking lightweight tools for use by those, like Navy Seals, who go out and try to diffuse things like underwater mines. Tools currently made of beryllium have been found to be cancer-causing, so they’re no longer available. But you need a non-sparking tool to disable mines in order to avoid being blown up --- and ceramic tools fit the requirements.”

ACM has already delivered six of the new variety of tool to the government for evaluation and Biggers says “there are more on the order of 25 or so that we’re still working with to add to their toolbox.” In recognition of their professional efforts, ACM has need named among the Top 10 of Defense Contractors in Arizona and one of the Top 5 Defense Contractor Companies in Tucson.

Keeping an eye on other applications for these kinds of tools beyond what the Navy will buy, Biggers says other R&D efforts in ceramics are promising, like space program launch pads that can withstand 4,000 degree heat at blast-off. “We use research dollars to create new products that we can then use commercially.”

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Already a preferred vendor for Boeing Company, the production side of the ACM house does a lot of commercial aircraft work. “Almost all new airplanes are heavily made out of composite materials, fibers and epoxies woven together and compressed under pressure at high temperatures to produce a material as strong as metal, but much lighter for increased airplane fuel efficiency.

“Our hope is that this new way of creating and manufacturing composites will catch hold and people will save a lot of money. And we’d like to be a part of that as we continue our research and grow our commercial product line.”

In addition to the aviation industry, the strong, lightweight composites could also serve as an alternative to metal in items such as cars and bicycles.

The high tech-Native American partnership evolved a decade ago when the existing Advanced Ceramics Research company started by two materials scientists decided to spin off a manufacturing arm of the company with a vision to team up with Native Americans. (The research entity was eventually acquired by another industry biggie, defense giant BAE Systems). The San Xavier Development Authority, with both land and a facility which could be used for production, was interested and put up a $2 million ante to get the process underway.

“They wanted more than just a tenant in this,” says Eggers. “They wanted to create jobs along with a return on their investment. The current work force of 20 includes 5 tribal hires and while a full return on their investment still awaits, the future is promising and they remain supportive. Our annual sales are on the order of $2.5 million. 

“We’ve had profitable years in the past and we’ll be a profit-making entity in the future once we’ve amortized the heavy investment made for our facility. Right now our government contracts are worth about $1.4 million and we have proposals in for another $2 million. We all hoped we’d be further along at this point than we are, but I feel comfortable that we’re on the right path to turn things around next year.”

Below, watch ACM's brief overview of a few of their products: