When the space shuttle Atlantis thundered into
orbit in May 2009, it had aboard a vital piece of
equipment that might easily have carried a “Made
in West Virginia” label. On board the shuttle was a new
camera destined for the Hubble Space Telescope, carefully
stored in a protective carrier built in West Virginia.
Jeff Imel (left), shown here with RCBI Director of Manufacturing Services Arley Carpenter, has worked closely with RCBI since moving his company, Air Robotics, Inc., to West Virginia
The Super Lightweight Interchangeable Carrier – called
“SLIC” for short – was built at FMW Composite Systems Inc. in
Fairmont, working closely with the Robert C. Byrd Institute for
Advanced Flexible Manufacturing (RCBI) and NASA’s Goddard
Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.
The SLIC looks very much like an ordinary hotel luggage cart,
but it’s a truly revolutionary piece of equipment because it’s
crafted from carbon fiber composite material, making it both
lighter and stronger than its all-metal predecessors.
“It performed magnificently well,” Frank Cepollina, deputy
associate director for the Hubble Space Telescope Development
Project at Goddard, said following the flight. “It’s the carrier
that basically made this mission possible. … The Hubble team,
with the help of RCBI and FMW Composites, has led the way
with SLIC. These composite structures will
play a vital role in the future of all human
Photo courtesy of NASA
RCBI became involved in the project soon
after FMW won a contract to build the carrier,
said Director and CEO Charlotte Weber. FMW
utilized test equipment, training facilities,
laser measuring systems and computercontrolled
lathes and mills at RCBI.
RCBI has also assisted FMW in developing
titanium matrix and metal components for a
variety of applications for Boeing Aircraft, GE
Engines and Rolls-Royce Engines.
“I can’t overstate how critical the assistance
from RCBI is to our business,” said FMW
President Dale McBride. “We regularly take
advantage of RCBI expertise, whether in
the form of technical training or the hightech
equipment that ensures we are able to
complete our projects on time and, at the same
time, meet the stringent requirements.”
Established in 1990, RCBI serves as an
innovative catalyst for economic development
by providing manufacturers, entrepreneurs
and workers access to the 21st century
equipment and skills they need to compete in
today’s global marketplace.
The Handyscan 3D Digital Laser Scanner, used here by RCBI Production Engineer Christopher H. Figgatt, is self-positioning and truly portable, meaning it can perform work anywhere, from RCBI to a shop floor or even in the field for a quick assessment.
RCBI’s Advanced Manufacturing Technology
Centers in Huntington, Charleston, Bridgeport
and Rocket Center (near Keyser in the state’s
Eastern Panhandle) offer leased time on
manufacturing equipment and a wide variety
of technical training (general and customized
on-site training), as well as workforce
Cutting-edge technologies available at RCBI
include reverse engineering, 3D printing and
prototyping, laser cutting, wire EDM, Swiss
turning center, and waterjet technology. Services
include quality certification/implementation,
business development and the 21st Century
Manufacturing Network, a computerized
database linking West Virginia manufacturers
and providing up-to-the-minute information
on contract opportunities. RCBI’s Bridgeport
facility is home to West Virginia’s Composite
Center of Excellence, which worked closely with
FMW on the SLIC project.
“Not every project we’re involved with
is as exciting or glamorous as SLIC,” said
Weber. “But we approach each with the same
level of dedication and commitment. And
make no mistake about it, SLIC dramatically
points the way to West Virginia’s future – a
future where the sky’s no limit.”
Two entrepreneurs who can offer dramatic
testimony to that fact are Rick Houvouras of
Huntington and Jeff Imel of Charleston.
Houvouras is the managing partner of
Star Technologies, LLC, which manufactures
a broad array of fasteners for the aviation
industry and other customers. In a typical year
it will produce more than three million parts.
“I tell all of my peers that are in high-tech manufacturing the only plac e to be right now is West Virginia.
We have RCBI, MATRIC, TechConnectWV, the West Virginia High Tech Consortium, the Chemical Alliance Zone and so many more organizations that help new businesses to
thrive, grow and employ.”
Jeff Imel, Owner
AIR ROBOTICS, INC
The company got its start in 1994, when
Houvouras and a group of other local
investors saw an opportunity in the departure
of a long-time Huntington fastener plant,
Adel Precision Products Corp. A Californiabased
company bought the plant, closed it
and moved the jobs to the West Coast. That
left many of Adel’s veteran employees jobless.
Some had never worked anywhere else.
Enter Houvouras and the
other local investors
who teamed up and
raised $800,000 to start
Star Technologies. The new venture began
operation by hiring a half-dozen former Adel
employees – and turning to RCBI for help.
“RCBI not only allowed us to use hightech
machines that we wouldn’t otherwise
have had access to, but provided training for
our employees to help them use the latest
technology,” Houvouras said.
And, too, RCBI helped the company obtain
the quality certifications required by major
companies such as GE. “We now manufacture
200 different designs for GE,” Houvouras said.
Air Robotics Im IV-B Airborne Vehicle System with Modular Payload Lifting System.
Photo courtesy Air Robotics, Inc.
Jeff Imel started out making model airplanes.
Today he’s the owner of Air Robotics, Inc., a
company that makes and markets an ultralight
flying drone that looks a lot like a miniature
stealth bomber. It has a six-foot wingspan and
weighs only 2.5 pounds. A payload
pod strapped underneath can carry up to 15
pounds of cameras and sensors. Imel says he
originally envisioned his creation as solely of
use to the military but has come to realize it has
broad civilian applications as well.
Imel moved his company to West Virginia
from Indiana about two years ago and is quick
to praise his adopted state.
“I tell all my colleagues that West Virginia is
the place to be,” Imel said. “The opportunities
here with the support of places like RCBI are
comparable to none across the country. RCBI
has been instrumental to our success here in
RCBI Advanced Manufacturing Technology Center located in Bridgeport, W.Va.
Now, RCBI has unveiled its newest venture,
its Design Works labs.
The Design Works labs offer inventors and
entrepreneurs the tools they need to take their
idea or concept to reality. Aspiring inventors
or entrepreneurs can use specialized computer
software to shape their ideas into threedimensional
digital computer models that
can be used to create working prototypes. The
prototype can then in turn be used to test the
form, fit and function of the end-use product.
“Today’s new and emerging technologies are
rewriting the book on manufacturing,” said
Weber. “And I’m proud to say RCBI is
playing an essential role in the book’s