Photo by Reagan Jones

When Tool Gauge CEO Debbie Lee boards an airplane, she notices things other passengers probably overlook or take for granted.

Her South Tacoma-based company is responsible for creating many of the small but essential plastic and metal items — handicap-assist handles in lavatories; galley cart bumper guides; cabin stowage bins; ventilation grills; wing-mounted fuel and hydraulic line clamp assemblies; and components for fuel doors, landing gear, and engine mounts — that are found inside and outside most commercial airplanes. 

“What’s really interesting for me is when I can identify our parts on the control panels,” she explained. “It’s exciting for me to know the pilots are actually touching the knobs we made to fly the planes.”

Founded by the late George Lackermayer in 1966 as a small tool and die shop, Tool Gauge began, about 30 years ago, to hone its business focus on the aerospace industry.

Today, the company, which is one of only a handful of Boeing-certified Class I and Class II plastic shops in the world capable of machining full five-axis parts, has two divisions — one for plastic injection molding, and another for machining metal.

The company posted revenue of $45 million in 2016-17, according to the Puget Sound Business Journal, and its clients (in addition to Boeing) include Orion Aerospace Industry Manufacturers, Diehl Aviation, Spirit AeroSystems, and others.

“When I first started here, we all used to laugh about the fact that we were the biggest secret in Tacoma,” said Lee, who started to work at Tool Gauge as a project manager in 2001, was appointed to COO in 2012, and has served as the company’s CEO since 2016. “Now, we are not.”

It’s a great time to be in the aerospace widgets market.

According to the Washington State Department of Commerce, the aerospace industry employs more than 136,000 people at approximately 1,400 companies in Washington, and it produces almost $70 billion in statewide economic activity.

Closer to home, the Economic Development Board (EDB) for Tacoma-Pierce County notes that more than 70 aerospace industry companies, such as AIM Aerospace, Cadence Aerospace, General Plastics, GKN Aerospace, P&J Machining, Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics, Service Steel Aerospace, Tool Gauge, and Toray Composite Materials have manufacturing, research, and development facilities across Pierce County. These companies are part of the supply chain for Boeing 737, 747, 767, 777, and 787 airplanes.

In June, the EDB attended the International Paris Air Show to meet with foreign and domestic companies and discuss potential sites, available workforce, and possible incentives for aerospace companies to consider Tacoma and Pierce County.

Tool Gauge is getting a lift from all of this activity.

In July, the company employed 168 people, and had openings for two dozen more positions. According to Lee, Tool Gauge expects to create 100 jobs by 2024. In January, the company was awarded a $125,000 grant from the Washington State Department of Commerce, in partnership with the EDB for Tacoma-Pierce County, to help drive hiring and expansion.

Tool Gauge has invested $22 million to expand its manufacturing facility, from 49,000 square feet to 80,000 square feet. 

Photo by Jeff Hobson

The state-of-the-art facility, the first phase of which was completed in August, features a customer lobby with storyboard depicting Tool Gauge’s history, two conference rooms, six offices, and 14 work spaces. 

More specific to the company’s manufacturing floor operations, the new facility includes a vertical paint system (the company currently outsources much of its paint operations) and multiple collaborative robots (or “cobots”) that aim to improve productivity for Tool Gauge’s employees.

“Automation is very exciting for us at our new facility,” Lee explained. “Cobots are different than robots. They actually work beside the employee. We are taking on a lot of the repetitive work that operators and assembly makers are doing, and transferring it over to the cobot. Once an employee is trained, cobots are very simple to program, and they work right alongside the employee.”

What’s driving all this growth?

“If you look at the forecasts airplane manufacturers are putting out on replacement planes and new repairs to old planes within the next 10 to 20 years; it’s a market that we feel we can be very competitive in,” Lee said. “I don’t see planes going away.”

Although the company has earned industry awards from the Pacific Northwest Aerospace Alliance and The Boeing Company, Lee said one of the company’s biggest accomplishments is its contribution to growing the aerospace industry in the
South Sound.

“So many people are leaving Tacoma and driving north to SeaTac or Everett or Kent to go into aerospace manufacturing,” Lee said. “To know that we are putting jobs here in Tacoma, and it means that people in the South Sound have these types of opportunities, is pretty exciting.”

Photos by Reagan Jones