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Sandia’s assistance helps lead to successful launch of innovative airplane cargo containers

Sandia’s assistance helps lead to successful launch of innovative airplane cargo containers

Making a better air cargo container

Sandia’s work with the local company Aerospace Composite Structures (ACS) has led to several breakthroughs in airplane cargo container technology.
ACS, the Rio Rancho-based manufacturer of airline Unit Load Devices (ULDs), develops specialized products using composite materials for the transportation industry.

Sandia’s role with ACS began in 1998 when ACS sought assistance with developing a robotic manufacturing concept for a graphite composite aircraft-shipping container.

Eventually ACS moved away from graphite composite construction to a sandwich panel construction featuring a polypropylene honeycomb core with polypropylene glass skins. Sandia provided assistance with the design of the container, the manufacturing methods, and testing of various material combinations.

Since then, the first ULD, the AeroBox, a cargo and baggage container for use in most widebody aircraft, has been field tested by several US and international air carriers. The container is tougher and easier to repair than traditional metal air cargo containers.

ACS began to hire additional business and technical employees, says Matt Donnelly, a former Sandian and now the vice president of production for ACS.
ACS approached Matt this past summer, and with the support of his management he was approved for Entrepreneurial Separation to Transfer Technology (ESTT) and started full time with the company this fall.

ACS has benefited from Sandia’s expertise in robotics, composites, material testing, and process engineering, Matt says. ACS has received product design assistance, material testing support, and processing guidance. ACS and Sandia worked together on a modular container design and the panel edge geometry that allows the panels to be joined efficiently. Together they developed the thermal processing and tooling that allows the forming of the panel edges. ACS has applied for both design and processing patents with Sandia as a co-inventor.

Several arrangements between Sandia and ACS included work-for-others, small business assistance, and entrepreneurial separation.
“I am able to draw from my Sandia training and the structure at the Labs in managing my new organization,” he says, adding that he oversees 18 employees, a number expected to grow to nearly 50.

Matt says he has seen several challenges at ACS, including the current worldwide shortage of 7075 aluminum used as the base sheet in the ACS product, and the price of oil, which causes airlines to be conservative with their purchases of new containers.

One issue he is working on is dealing with material and equipment vendors that do not deliver on time.

Matt says there are several ways small business can benefit from Sandia, including work-for-others, small business assistance, user facilities, entrepreneurial consulting, and entrepreneurial separation to transfer technology.

“An expansion of the entrepreneurial consulting program with the requirement for a concurrent funds-in agreement would be particularly effective in assisting small businesses in New Mexico to succeed while minimizing conflict of interest issues,” he says.

“The support of my management and the New Ventures program has been outstanding. My ESTT is the last step in Sandia’s efforts to help a small New Mexico business.”

Matt says ACS would like to continue its partnership with Sandia in the future.

Matt always wanted to try something entrepreneurial. ESTT allowed him to do that while Sandia contributed to the community.