While working as a commercial airline pilot, Ned Bowers founded Skybolt with his father in 1982.
In this conversation, Ned discusses Skybolt’s contribution to the aerospace, transportation, and industrial racing industries.
Made in America: What’s your background?
Ned: I started in the engineering field. I was fortunate enough to be an intern at NASA during Apollo and worked with the S1C Stage, which was the first stage of Saturn 5. We worked in sky lab and I worked through the preliminary of the shuttle development. I got a little sidetracked on the engineering side and I pursued my aviation career. I recently retired from Delta Airlines after 37 years. I’ve had over 1,000 Atlantic crossings and now I’ve put that chapter away and I’m ready to build the next one.
Made in America: Can you tell me about how the Company started?
Ned: Skybolt started with my Mom and Dad. I had just become an airline pilot and I wanted to have a side business. My dad and I put our heads together and created an airplane parts business. It quickly evolved to focus more on fasteners, and after that we began to focus more on manufacturing panel fasteners, commonly called “cowling fasteners”. It seemed like a huge void in the market. So, that’s been our true focus is fasteners and the manufacturing of panel fasteners.
Made in America: Can you go into more detail on what you specialize in?
Ned: We specialize in quarter-turn, quick release fasteners. We cover a few of the more common designs dating back to the 1930’s. The camloc design is one of my favorites. I’ve done approximately 17 patents on spinoffs from the basic 1940’s camloc design to make it more user friendly, both in aerospace and the industrial markets like transportation and industrial racing. These were uses that were never originally thought of because of the unique design, but we’ve changed it enough to make it more user friendly for the mass market.
Made in America: Can you tell me about the fastener kits?
Ned: Actually, that’s what really got us into manufacturing. We determined that there were so many variations of general aviation aircraft engine cowlings, that it would take a maintenance shop half a day just to document the various sizes and different manufacturers on the engine cowling alone. In the 1980’s, I got the idea to get a parts manual for every airplane, and I actually noticed that the manuals were only 30 percent correct. It varied for each unique airplane. Our objective was to cover everything ever built, from general aviation up until light jets. So, I had to go out and look at the planes myself to document which parts they were using. After about four years of documentation, I developed these kits. It saves maintenance shops an enormous amount of time when trying to figure out the parts they need and where to buy them. All I need to know is the serial number of the airplane and I know every piece that we develop in these kits. It’s been very successful. It’s one of our prized product lines and we’re continuing to develop that.
Made in America: So, do you manufacture all of your products?
Ned: We manufacture about 98 percent of everything we sell in our shop here in Leesburg. We outsource some offshore but very little. Most of it we try to use US domestically sourced products. Most of the time I can find cheaper options within the US, but that’s not always the case. It’s nice to deal with American providers because they’re easier to get a hold of when I have an issue with a part.
Made in America: What are you looking forward to in the next year or two?
Ned: We’ve diversified several industries. Transportation and defense industries excite me more than anything because there’s more vehicles than airplanes. We’re also excited to participate with young entrepreneurs in our space program. I got started with NASA’s Apollo, and now I’m coming full-circle with Skybolt on the first launch of Americans back in space in early 2019. That’s going to put us solidly back into the space program as a provider of specialty designs that we’ve come up with in conjunction with the young space engineers. It’s interesting, because nobody in these plants is over 30 years old. It’s really exciting to work with the young minds that have done things that could’ve never been done back in my day, and that has my whole Skybolt team really excited. We also have projects on army fighting vehicles. That puts us solidly in the defense program for 2019. There’s so much that can be done to make our fighting vehicles safer and more efficient, so it keeps us excited.
Made in America: In what other areas are your fasteners used?
Ned: Well, I’d like to say that we’re the unofficial official fastener of NASCAR. In that arena, our parts are tested every Friday, Saturday and Sunday. If we can get through a 500-mile race on Sunday then we’ve certainly proven our parts there. I always say that the racing industry is more concerned about weight than anything I’ve run into in aerospace. It’s a little diversion from the normal thought process, but the racing industry as a whole is extremely innovative and Skybolt does really well with that.
Made in America: Has your experience as a commercial airline pilot affected your career with Skybolt?
Ned: First of all, I had a very successful 37-year career in airline flying. The airline industry has a zero tolerance for not following procedures. The system has a way of training so that everybody is on the exact same page. They make sure to put the same level of responsibility on everyone in the cabin crew, so that the captain doesn’t have too much power. This way, everyone holds each other accountable. I brought that philosophy and culture into Skybolt. We’re all a team here, but we also have to keep each other in check. I manage it that way to minimize rejected parts and to keep everybody working together. It was an honor to experience that level of professionalism and bring it back to my own company.
Made in America: Did you have any prior experience with manufacturing before Skybolt?
Ned: Manufacturing has always been a passion of mine and when the opportunity came about to get into the fastening business, I had to learn the trade fairly quickly. One of the advantages of doing it that way is that sometimes ignorance is your best friend. We could afford to journey around the old traditional manufacturing and try innovative techniques. Sometimes it didn’t work out too well, and other times it worked out really well. And I will say, by now we have perfected 24/7 unattended production. We’re constantly trying to figure out new ways to automate stuff, which actually creates more jobs, rather than decreasing employment. Automation takes skilled people to run it. We’ve increased our productivity and our job force at the same time. The whole production process has changed dramatically from the old style of doing things. 40-50 years ago, companies would source 10,000 parts in order to find 10 parts. We realized in the 80’s that just finding those parts was more of a challenge than actually manufacturing the parts, so we changed the whole production process. That gives us an edge opposed to big traditional manufacturing.
Made in America: Is there some type of quality control for manufacturing the parts?
Ned: AS 9100 came along recently, and it’s a very high-level quality system that we achieved last year after years of not being ready. It’s a whole new science. These manufacturing companies just have to make sure that they can produce quality products at a steady rate even with interruptions. An interruption to production lines can be extremely costly. Our idea is that quality comes with a price but no quality has a much larger price. That’s our focus going forward.