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Northstar, Cirrus flying in tandem

But Duluth co. needs more contracts

By Peter Passi

Duluth News Tribune

DULUTH -- Northstar Aerospace, a Duluth-based machine shop that got its start in the aviation industry as a supplier for Cirrus Design Corp., is gunning for contracts with additional airplane manufacturers.

Recently, Cirrus singled out Northstar as its "supplier of the year." Northstar's 50-person shop beat out massive Fortune 500 companies to earn the honor as Cirrus' most valued and consistent supplier.

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Now, John Eagleton, Northstar's president and CEO, hopes Cirrus' accolades will help him land new business in the aviation industry.

Last year, Northstar delivered about 180,000 machined parts to Cirrus, and 99.5 percent of them arrived on time and defect-free.

"Of course, our target is zero defects," Eagleton said. "But we're still humans making parts here."

Among the many airplane parts Northstar manufactures and assembles are components that go into Cirrus' unique emergency parachute systems, its cockpit controls, its seating and its landing gear.

Northstar delivers parts to Cirrus on a daily basis, making it unnecessary for the manufacturer to stock a large inventory. This "just-in-time" system helped Cirrus free up more than 6,000 square feet of space in its Duluth assembly plant for production and sharply trimmed inventory costs.

Stephen Chun, Cirrus' vice president of manufacturing, said Northstar now performs several fabrication and assembly tasks that his company used to perform in-house.

As a result, Cirrus has been able to focus on boosting production and improving quality.

"You know the old adage about being a jack of all trades and a master of none," Chun said. "We don't want to do everything. We want strong partners."

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But Northstar's evolving role has placed a lot of responsibility on its shoulders.

Northstar uses a bar-code tracking system to make sure a sufficient supply of parts and the raw materials needed to produce them are always in the pipeline.

Richard Lien, Northstar's director of operations, borrowed some of the ideas for inventory controls and ordering mechanisms the company now employs from his stint as a buyer for Target Corp. Lien joined the discount retailer when the chain comprised just five stores and left when it had 55 outlets.

Despite his foray into retailing, Lien has spent most of his career in the machining industry. He operated a shop, first with his father and then independently, producing precision components for high-tech clients, including Control Data Corp.

When Eagleton decided a few years ago to push Northstar aggressively into the aviation sector, he came knocking on Lien's door.

Precision counts in the aviation industry, where almost every component that goes into an airplane must be certified by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Every step of the way, Northstar tests and measures the components it produces to make sure they meet strict specifications. Using computerized equipment, the company can measure the dimensions of pieces it makes to within one 5-millionth of an inch.

Lien said Northstar continually works with Cirrus to look for ways to improve manufacturing processes, sometimes reducing costs at the same time. He cited a new approach to machining a landing gear component that saved Cirrus about $200 per aircraft.

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"Our relationship with Cirrus is not just as a supplier but as a partner," Lien said.

Tom Bartoe, Cirrus' vice president of supply chain and logistics, said, "Northstar's role as a vendor has expanded, based on its willingness to grow and work with us, as well as its close proximity."

Staff from Cirrus and Northstar have enjoyed "a close relationship," Bartoe said, explaining that people from both companies have collaborated to improve production and quality.

As Cirrus has ramped up airplane production, Northstar has grown alongside it. Four years ago, the machine shop -- then doing business as Northstar Machine &; Tool -- employed 12 people. Today, Northstar Aerospace has 50 workers on its payroll.

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