When the X-45 unmanned fighter jet takes off on its maiden flight next month, the traditional thumbs-up signal may well be replaced with a “Surf’s up!” yell.
It’s not because the flight is taking place in California but that the world’s most advanced robotic aircraft will have wings that are essentially high-tech versions of a surfboard.
A surfer-turned-amateur engineer, who more than three decades ago began making surfboards, is hoping to revolutionize the aerospace industry with a technology that has become as ubiquitous as plastic. Foam, used widely in the manufacturing of lightweight surfboards, is being put to use in wings and other aircraft parts.
Kent Sherwood, founder of Foam Matrix in Inglewood, is well-known among local beachcombers. He developed the Malibu Surf Ski paddle board in the 1960s and in the 1970s introduced the Z-Flex skateboard, which was the subject of a 2001 Sundance Film Festival award-winning documentary narrated by Sean Penn.
Sherwood, whose quest to make a better surfboard turned into a lifelong study of foam structures, is now making waves in Washington.
Suzanne Patrick, the Pentagon’s deputy secretary for industrial policy, told a congressional committee last month that the military is looking for less traditional sources of defense technology. She cited Sherwood’s 12-employee company as a prime example.
“California’s Foam Matrix started as a surfboard supplier and now is a builder of composite wings for the unmanned combat air vehicle,” Patrick told the panel, some of whose members were a bit befuddled by the name. “Innovation and small firms have always had an important place in our defense industrial base.”
A few weeks earlier, Boeing Co. had awarded Foam Matrix its Supplier Innovation Award for 2002. Considering that Boeing has 24,000 suppliers, the recognition for such a small subcontractor came as bit of a surprise. Boeing is developing the X-45, also known as the unmanned combat air vehicle, or UCAV, for the Air Force in conjunction with the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
“Innovations typically happen when somebody thinks outside the box,” said John P. Bishop, director of supply management and quality for Boeing’s Phantom Works, the company’s research and development group that is making the UCAV. “This includes the supplier with the new idea and the Boeing engineer who recommended going with the supplier in the first place.”
The process of making the 34-foot-long wings seems deceptively simple and is little changed from the way sail boards are made. Instead of using several tooling machines, foam material is poured into a single, large molding block. All the electric wiring and other components are then molded together into the one-piece foam core.
After curing, the core is wrapped in composite fibers and then placed back into the mold and is cured with resin to form the wing’s skin. There is no bonding, welding or riveting of materials as required with composite or traditional aluminum wings.
As such, the process, which Sherwood patented, takes about one day, a far cry from the several weeks it would take to construct a similar wing out of composite materials or metals. Moreover, the wings have fewer parts and don’t require much labor, thus reducing cost. A single employee can produce a wing in one day.
“The process eliminates about 20 steps in the process of making a wing, and it’s lighter and stronger,” Sherwood said. “It’s pretty much surfboard stuff but of higher quality. If you really think about it, a wing is a surfboard.”
Boeing executives rave about Sherwood and Foam Matrix, which Boeing discovered almost by accident. It’s highly unusual for the world’s largest aerospace company, with nearly 200,000 employees, to deal directly with such a tiny firm.
“Everything so far has gone well,” Bishop said. “Everything has been up to snuff.”
The Boeing engineer who stumbled upon Foam Matrix was Ted Ralston, who was working on the design of the unmanned aircraft while helping a crew from public television’s NOVA put together a segment on Easter Island. Ralston was trying to figure out a way to replicate the 13-ton Moai statues that line Easter Island and contacted Sherwood, who also helps artists make materials out of foam. (The effort was separate from the Styrofoam figures built for Hollywood studios that have generated protests by Easter Islanders.)
In working together on the project, Ralston learned that Sherwood had begun doing some aerospace work, including making foam fins for Orbital Sciences Inc.'s Pegasus rocket, and Ralston eventually asked Sherwood if the company could develop a lightweight wing for the new aircraft.
The foam wing was an ideal solution to an unusual requirement unique to the UCAV, according to Boeing. The Pentagon wants an aircraft whose wings can be removed from the fuselage, with the disassembled parts capable of being stored in a container for up to 10 years. Because there are few parts and neither moving components or hollow cavities, the wings sustain less wear and tear while being transported or stored for lengthy periods of time.
Working with Boeing has led to other opportunities for Foam Matrix, many of which the company can’t disclose because they involve classified programs.
But one program could have immediate payoff. Foam Matrix is developing new fins to go on the outside of engines of the C-17 military transport plane. Boeing is looking at replacing the so-called engine nacelles, which, when damaged, must be replaced with a new piece. Foam, on the other hand, can be repaired, much like filling holes in a wall with putty. The foam Sherwood uses is much stiffer and has higher strength than consumer market foams, such as Styrofoam.
Making wings for the X-45 represents the complete transformation of the company from a sports equipment maker to an aerospace firm.
In the early 1990s, Sherwood decided to literally grow up. Declaring that the company’s motto would henceforth be “no more toys,” he called a halt to making surfboards, skateboards and sail boards.
Overnight, Foam Matrix turned into an aerospace company. Its big break came when Dick Rutan’s Scaled Composites at Mojave Airport asked Sherwood to make the fins for a rocket the company was developing.
Foam Matrix hasn’t completely severed its ties to the past. The company’s logo shows a surfer atop an aircraft and is emblazoned with “UCAV surf team.”
And Sherwood, 60, still surfs in Malibu.