Space business in Colorado clear for liftoff

Representatives from nearly 60 Western Slope businesses explored the strange, new world of aerospace commerce, networked with potential customers and boldly went where few had gone before: the precision machining and assembly factory of Lewis Engineering.

Situated near Grand Junction Regional Airport, Lewis Engineering is the 66,000–square-foot home of 70 skilled workers, including five engineers and nearly 50 machine operators.

The tour for area business representatives was the first stage of a program organized by Club 20 that brought the Colorado Space Business Roundtable to Grand Junction.

A Denver nonprofit, the roundtable promotes the growth of space-related industry in Colorado.

The organization’s Grand Junction stop was the second on a tour that started in Durango and concludes today in Rifle. The group also will pay a visit to Colorado Mesa University today.

The machining of “complex and super complex” products is the market niche Lewis Engineering is aiming to fill, Chief Operating Officer Matt Collins told one of the tour groups.

“Our primary focus is to stay on top of the food chain,” Collins said. “As those of you who are in business know, international competition in the global economy, that’s our real competition.”

Manufacturing engineer Grant Crowley led one group to explain how parts flowed from one $500,000 machine to another and ultimately to the place where they are quality tested before being delivered to a buyer. Most on the tour were impressed.

“Being a pilot as well as an airport consultant, this is just fascinating to see how these machines are made because I see it on the user end in the planes that I fly,” said Dennis Corsi, president of Armstrong Consultants, a Grand Junction firm that provides planning, engineering and construction administration for airports.

Steven Hauck of Hauck Engineering in Montrose toured the floor like a kid in a candy store, holding up each shiny, spiraling, aluminum part for a closer look, noting the smoothness of its machined holes and marveling at the complexity of the design.

Beyond his admiration for the work, Hauck was looking for business opportunities.

“We want to make more contacts on the Western Slope with vendors and hopefully more suppliers for us,” Hauck said. “We’re a little job shop now with a bunch of these same exact machines. We want to grow our business and this is a great business model for us. The complexity is way up there compared to what we do.”

Jobs were the focus of Mesa County Commissioner John Justman, who liked what he saw.

“We want some jobs,” Justman said. “I want big ones. I don’t want room-cleaning maids as a new add-on. I want something that’s likely to generate income for the people. When they have money, they spend it.”

If good-paying jobs is what participants were looking for, no need to look further.

According to data compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2011, the average yearly salary for computer-controlled machine tool operators was $38,000; for engineer technicians $51,000; for software developers $98,000; for atmospheric and space scientists $102,000; and for aerospace engineers $104,000.


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