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December 22, 1998

5 Min Read
The Penobscot Indian Nation now molds high-tech parts for aviation

Olamon Industries (Old Town, ME) is a custom molding and contract manufacturing company owned by the oldest documented, continuously operating government in North America-the Penobscot Indian Nation. IMM took you on a tour of the Olamon plant last year. At that time, Olamon was just beginning to diversify and expand its customer base beyond the audio media markets it has been serving during the past decade. In August of this year, Olamon announced that it had successfully branched out into a lucrative market by way of association with a really big company. Olamon has entered into a license agreement with an $8 billion U.S. defense contractor, the Northrop Grumman Corp. (Los Angeles), to manufacture and market a first-of-its-kind Tactical Landing Light System (TLLS). It's estimated that the project will generate additional sales in excess of $6 million per year through Olamon for the Penobscot Indian Nation, and it will add more than 50 technical positions at the $11 million+, 110-employee-strong Olamon.

Northrop Grumman's patented TLLS is designed for use in delineating and illuminating unprepared landing zones for helicopters and other aircraft. It's a portable system of battery-powered lights set up by ground crews. Sophisticated electronics in the "head" of the TLLS allow pilots to remotely control the system, increasing navigation safety. An approaching pilot activates a strobe-light on the TLLS to find the general landing location. The strobe is disengaged upon closer approach and the pilot engages the system's halogen-light ground illumination subsystem, which is designed to reflect light onto the ground so the pilot can clearly see the landing terrain before landing right on top of the lights.

The TLLS lays out a pattern of lights in a Y-shaped formation, indicating wind direction, so the pilot is not subjected to challenging or problematic wind currents when landing. Its use of color-coded lenses clearly identifies hazards such as power lines and tree limbs. The system is expected to be used by medical and rescue transport crews; the FBI; the DEA; and other government, military, and law enforcement agencies. Other applications also have been marked out by market research, including hospital landing sites and small civil airfields.

Al Marquis, Olamon's general manager, says this project has been two years in the making. Northrup Grumman had an existing relationship with Estech Inc. (Annandale, VA), a surveillance and security company. Its owner, a former Washington, DC police person with military contacts, saw how archaic conventional methods for landing in unprepared zones were, and brought his ideas to Northrup Grumman. Northrup Grumman thought his ideas made sense, so it engineered, designed, and was awarded patents for the TLLS. It was then prepared to license manufacturing and assembly. James H. Cossingham, a Native American of the Nipmuc tribe and president of Jayco Enterprises, served as coordinating consultant. Olamon's Marquis says that Cossingham, who's always on the lookout for bringing new opportunities to Native Americans, was instrumental in bringing all the parties together.

In the article last June, we discussed how Olamon has used automation and waste control to succeed in competitive audio media markets, like CD jewel boxes and audio cassettes. Its business in audio media markets continues to be strong in spite of these markets slowing down here in North America. But Marquis says Northrup Grumman was much more impressed with Olamon's manufacturing expertise than its high-speed automation and recycling efforts: "The TLLS system involves five molded engineering thermoplastic components with very demanding tolerances. It was convinced that our injection molding capabilities were up to the job." Marquis also says it was impressed with Olamon's capabilities in assembly. "Half of our business is in assembly-assembly, quality assurance, and fulfillment." The TLLS will not require the high-speed automated assembly Olamon uses for audio media products. Marquis says that manual and semiautomated assembly will be used, because of the system's critical quality requirements. Thorough part testing will take place after each stage of assembly. "It must function perfectly every time it's used," he says. "It could be a matter of life and death."

Olamon will farm-out the manufacturing of the electronics and I/O circuitry. Marquis says that tooling for the project may very well go to Olamon's favorite moldmaker, Apex Engineering (Pittsfield, MA). Marquis said he soon expected focus groups to be formed to identify all the important features of the TLLS, after which Olamon will work closely with its moldmaker and potential users to ensure that the system's design is optimized for manufacturability. Olamon will use two of its existing 15 machines for the project, and it has budgeted for the addition of three more TLLS-dedicated presses.

Olamon formally announced the Northrop Grumman project at a press conference in late August on Indian Island in Old Town. This was seen by Marquis as a golden sales and marketing opportunity to announce the benefits the project will provide to the Penobscot Nation, to the local economy, and to manufacturing in Maine. American manufacturing, he says, generally does not receive a lot of positive press these days. "This project sends a message of how important industry and manufacturing really are in generating wealth. Every one manufacturing job that we can create with the community members that we employ creates three more jobs in the services and materials sectors to support that growth." At the press conference, Angus King, the popular governor of Maine, who is very supportive of manufacturing, said, "This project may be about a landing system for aircraft, but with it, Olamon Industries and the Penobscot Indian Nation are going to take off."

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