Mark Messick looked at the future of the composites industry on Wednesday by peeking into the past.

Messick, vice president and general manager of ATK Aerospace Structures, told a crowd at the Composites Manufacturing 2008 conference that successful composites manufacturing companies will be those who can find ways to automate manufacturing activities that currently are very labor-intensive — much the same way that the Ford Motor Co. implemented assembly-line concepts in the early 1900s.

Increasing composites manufacturing speed "seems to be influencing everything we do right now," Messick told the crowd of nearly 300 people at the conference, which was hosted by the Society of Manufacturing Engineers.

Messick compared the composites and auto industries in their early days, during which both required highly engineered systems and a dependency on skills and crafts to produce expensive items. But Ford's use of the assembly line brought the cost of a Model T to about $850 — much less than the typical $3,000 car of the time — and its assembly took only 94 minutes. That boosted Ford's market share as auto sales exploded in subsequent decades.

As car popularity grew, so did customer expectations of high quality, accessibility, affordability and enhancements — similar to today's composites industry, he said. That is leaving successful suppliers to embrace continuous improvement, process control, automation, customer satisfaction and "lean" manufacturing to get affordable, quality products to customers at a lower cost. "Those pressures now are greater than ever," said Messick, who holds two University of Utah degrees and who leads more than 900 employees at six facilities in Utah, Mississippi, Ohio, Massachusetts and Colorado.

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