Central Montana’s Vibrant Manufacturing Center Reaches Global Markets

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By Shannon Furniss

Situated in the geographic center of Montana in the midst of rolling hills, farms, and ranches is something a little unexpected: one of the most vibrant manufacturing communities in the state. With a population of about 6,500, Lewistown, Mont. has a cluster of companies that design, engineer, and manufacture products for airports, oil companies, federal agencies, food distribution centers, sports arenas, hospitals, banks, schools, the military, and the aerospace industry, to name a few. Together, the group supports nearly 500 manufacturing jobs in the Lewistown area.

One Lewistown business, Century Companies Inc., has about 175 employees and does everything from paving streets to building subdivisions and airports throughout the rural West and “hangs its hat” on manufacturing a raw product to a finished product, according to Century’s CEO Tim Robertson. The company produces much of its own material – around 50 tons to 400 tons of hot-mix asphalt per hour out of each of its eight plants. With its fleet of “rolling stock,” which encompasses more than 400 pieces of large construction equipment, the company paves airport hangers, runways, access roadways, and highways.

Just down the road is Spika Welding and Manufacturing, a company that specializes in designing and manufacturing industrial work platforms and ground support equipment for people working on military aircraft, tactical vehicles, and satellites. Tom Spika started his business as a two-person shop and has grown it to a multi-million dollar company employing about 50 people. Last year, Gov. Steve Bullock presented Spika Welding with the “Manufacturing Exporter of the Year” award. Spika exports his products globally to markets in Sweden, Australia, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. He also is the chairman of the Montana Manufacturing Council, a subsidiary of the Montana Chamber of Commerce.

Not far from Spika Welding and Century Companies is Allied Steel, which manufactures structural steel for malls, schools, hospitals, sports arenas, power plants, and other buildings all over the U.S. Allied Steel employs 190 people, 90 in its Lewistown shop and 100 in different locations in-state and out-of-state. Most of the manufacturing is done in Lewistown – the employees located elsewhere help with skilled detailing and overflow projects, according to Jeff Southworth, Allied Steel’s president. Right now, the company has 20 active jobs, which involve 11,343 tons of structural steel and a total of 193,640 shop hours. This year, the company’s president says he expects around 1,000 semi-trucks to carry full loads of product to different jobs.

Also nearby are HCR Inc. and Hi-Heat Industries Inc. HCR produces a re-circulatory air curtain door system that major food distribution centers such as Costco and Walmart use to keep products efficiently refrigerated. Hi-Heat engineers specialized heating elements to keep equipment such as ATMs warm in sub-zero weather. Spika got his start at HCR, where he worked for 10 years during the 90s.

These are just a few of the companies that are part of Fergus County’s high-tech manufacturing center. From time to time, Spika’s president ponders how Lewistown – “in very rural Montana where beef cattle and winter wheat are big” – could become such a business center. The town used to revolve only around agriculture, with relatively low-paying jobs.

In the late-70s, key people – like Jack Morgenstern who started Century Companies and is a mainstay in the community – began to move to Lewistown to start companies. They were drawn in by the lifestyle –hunting, fishing, the outdoors, motorsports, and snowmobiling, said Spika. In the 90s, several other “talented and expert business people” landed here and started what would become very successful companies, he said. “They had a bit of the entrepreneurial personality and were willing to take a little bit of a risk to get something up and going.” Of course Spika and the founder of Allied Steel, Jim Southworth (Jeff’s father), had grown up in Lewistown and built businesses that allowed them to stay in their hometown.

Healthy Businesses in the Heart of the State

This unique group of businesses in Lewistown that has worldwide markets and distribution, is something that community leaders are committed to keeping healthy, according to Century’s Roberston. Thirteen years ago, the Central Montana Manufacturing Alliance was formed with a mission of “sharing ideas, capabilities, and opportunities that lead to further development of member business and the economy of Central Montana.” Dale Detrick, a field engineer for the Montana Manufacturing Extension Center, brought the group together, and they’ve been meeting for breakfast once a month for the past 13 years.

“There’s a synergy between our companies,” according to Spika’s CEO. “None of us are really competitive with each other, but we have very similar challenges in running our businesses.”

Collaboration and Community

As the members of Central Montana Manufacturing Alliance learned about some of their neighbors’ companies, they began to figure out ways to collaborate. For example, there are some products that Spika Welding needs to powder coat, but they don’t own the equipment, which would cost around $120,000 and require a suitable building for the process. HCR Inc, which manufactures the re-circulatory air doors for refrigeration warehouses, is only a mile and a half away from Spika Welding and leases its powder coating facility to them. “It saves us a big investment and generates a new revenue stream for them,” said Spika. “It’s that kind of collaboration that really pays the dividends.”

Another way the companies collaborate is by sharing employees. In manufacturing, it’s hard to keep an even pace all year because job orders come in at different times, said Spika. Sometimes companies are really busy and need a few extra workers, and they can “lease” them from member companies. This helps companies through tight spots and provides workers with new learning experiences. On the other hand, if times are slow, workers can do temporary work for another member company instead of being laid off. “It’s a win-win for everybody,” he said.

Having a peer group to discuss challenges and issues with is important, too. The manufacturing alliance came about because of the “desire to help one another, stay relevant with trends in the manufacturing industry, and solve problems the best way possible,” said Century’s Robertson. “We are committed to maintaining a healthy economy here in Central Montana so that our businesses are in a healthy place.”

Partnering with Higher Education to Strengthen the Workforce

One of the challenges that Lewistown manufacturers often discuss is workforce shortages. A few of the companies are planning expansions in the next few years, but anticipate a critical shortage of trained workers in the area with skills in welding, machining, electronics, and diesel technology. While the group has been able to attract students from the nearby two-year colleges (Great Falls and Havre), it is difficult to compete with the high demand across Montana and North Dakota for these students, Robertson said.

A $25 million grant from the Montana Department of Labor and Industry may help Lewistown address some of the workforce issues. The Strengthening Workforce Alignment in Montana’s Manufacturing and Energy Industries (SWAMMEI) grant aims to create training programs accessible from anywhere in the state that link workers with high-wage jobs and enhance the state’s manufacturing and energy workforce, according to Matt Springer, director of the SWAMMEI program (now rebranded as RevUp Montana). Thirteen colleges throughout the state are participating. Through SWAMMEI, students will be able to take “stacked credentials” and decrease their time in training and increase their financial return on educational investment.

Earlier this fall, Springer and higher education leaders from the Montana University System met with the Lewistown manufacturers to discuss ways that they might collectively solve labor problems. One of the ideas discussed was developing some welding, manufacturing, and construction skills programming in Lewistown to attract students graduating from the local high school or for employees that need the training to go up to the next level, said Spika.

After the meeting, Springer and team worked on figuring out a way to meet the Lewistown manufacturers’ needs. Within a few months, Springer hopes to have three comprehensive training programs available in Lewistown – an industry safety program, a welding component, and an introductory electrical course. These programs also will provide industry-recognized credentials, which are critical in the manufacturing and energy industries, he said.

“Lewistown is a cool case study of what we’ll be able to do if we’re successful with the project overall,” said Springer. “The manufacturers have done such a great job coordinating with each other and articulating their needs. They are great minds, and they are really entrepreneurial and willing to partner. It’s a great collaboration between a group of manufacturers, the higher education community, and the Department of Labor.”

In another effort to address workforce and training issues across the state, the Gianforte Family Foundation recently announced $500,000 worth of scholarships for students who enroll in manufacturing and energy industry programs at two-year colleges in Montana. The scholarship aims to create opportunities for Montana students to receive training, to address the workforce issues in the manufacturing sector, and to create high-wage jobs in the state.

Montana: A Manufacturing Powerhouse

These days, it’s not altogether uncommon to see business executives from Tokyo or Tel Aviv in the local coffee shop, said Spika. “When they come to our little town of 6,500 people that’s two hours from the nearest commercial airport and two hours from the nearest Walmart, they say, ‘Geez this is remote.’” But that’s the appeal for many Lewistown residents, he said.

And according to Robertson, Montana has the potential to be a “manufacturing powerhouse in the Northwest. And if we recognize and embrace it fully, there is an opportunity to see Montana thrive.”


About the Author: Shannon Furniss is a Missoula-area journalist and communications specialist. Ms. Furniss is currently the communications director at the University of Montana Bureau of Business and Economic Research and the editor of the Montana Business Quarterly. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Montana.

About the Publisher: Launched in April 2014, the Montana High Tech Business Alliance is a statewide membership organization made up of more than 135 high tech and manufacturing firms and affiliates. More information on the Alliance can be found at: www.MTHighTech.org.


Spika Welding & Manufacturing: From Helicopters to Aerospace

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By Shannon Furniss

What started out as a two-person shop on a family farm has grown into a multi-million dollar company, which employs 50 people in the heart of Montana.

Spika Welding and Manufacturing specializes in designing and manufacturing industrial work platforms and ground support equipment for people working on military aircraft, tactical vehicles, and satellites. Last year, Gov. Steve Bullock presented Spika Welding with the “Manufacturing Exporter of the Year” award. President and founder, Tom Spika, exports his company’s products globally to markets in Sweden, Australia, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and Israel.

Spika is a longtime Lewistown resident. He and his wife, Carol, grew up in Lewistown and started their business in 2001 on their farm. They watched as classmates that grew up on family farms left for jobs in the city, a trend that was happening all over rural America. The couple was determined to stay on the farm and make their business work.

Shortly after opening his shop, Spika got a contract to manufacture aviation equipment for the National Guard, which allowed him to learn the ropes in the unique world of aviation and get connected with the Department of Defense. New to the military arena, it took Spika a while to get established.

After working with the military for a number of years, Spika realized that the equipment the servicemen were using to maintain their aircraft could be built better, and he set out to create a product that would be high-quality, safe, and effective. By 2008, Spika perfected his technology and began building OSHA-compliant maintenance platforms and wrap-around systems that would allow technicians to work on helicopters, fighter jets, stealth planes, and other aircraft. Having outgrown the shop on the farm, the company invested $1.5 million in a new 12,000 square foot building and moved the operation. Over the years, Spika has secured millions of dollars in defense contracts.

Around 2011, the Defense Department began scaling back the budget, so Spika decided to start pursuing other markets in the U.S. and overseas. Spika now designs and builds aviation maintenance equipment that he exports to global markets. His latest project involves outfitting a helicopter manufacturing company with platforms that are specifically designed to each work station, a process he calls “very design and engineering-intensive.” The company also is working with three different satellite companies on aerospace equipment. It’s been six years since Spika moved into the new building, but he says the company is planning another expansion this spring.

“A lot of our motivation when we started this business was to try to create job opportunities,” said Spika, who is currently the chairman of the Montana Manufacturing Council, a subsidiary of the Montana Chamber of Commerce. “There are so many kids that grow up on the farm that want to stay here, but farming is no longer employing the people that it used to. I hate to see us losing people that want to be here.”

Just recently, Spika’s daughter, Katie, assumed the role of Chief Operating Officer from her father. Spika continues on as lead product developer and president of the company. A graduate of theUniversity of Montana School of Business Administration, Katie and her father spoke at a CEO Forum hosted by the Great Falls Development Authority about making the leadership transition. Bekhi Spika, a University of Montana Journalism School graduate, is the director of marketing. One of Spika’s goals is to help reverse the trend of young people leaving Lewistown – creating opportunities for his daughters is a good start.


This article is part two of a four-part series on the Lewistown manufacturing cluster. Read Part one: Central Montana’s Vibrant Manufacturing Center Reaches Global Markets

About the Author: Shannon Furniss is a Missoula-area journalist and communications specialist. Ms. Furniss is currently the communications director at the University of Montana Bureau of Business and Economic Research and the editor of the Montana Business Quarterly. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Montana.

About the Publisher: Launched in April 2014, the Montana High Tech Business Alliance is a statewide membership organization made up of more than 135 high tech and manufacturing firms and affiliates.

Spika Welding & Manufacturing: From Helicopters to Aerospace

Case Study: Lockheed Martin Achieves Access Excellence with Satellite Work Platform

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Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company needed a custom work platform for use in a satellite manufacturing facility. Rather than design and build it themselves, they contracted the project to Spika. Working closely with the Lockheed team, Spika designed a 14-module work platform system to meet the complex requirements of the project.



Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company was selected by NASA to design and build the next-generation Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite R-Series (GOES-R). Data from the satellite will provide accurate real-time weather forecasts and early warning products to the public and private sectors. Lockheed’s Denver, Colorado facility was chosen to house the satellite pre-launch. In order to support the GOES-R manufacturing operations, the facility needed a Vertical Access Platform system. Jimmi Malacara, the Mechanical Ground Support Equipment Lead, was in charge of sourcing the equipment. “Platforms are very important,” said Malacara. “People underestimate their importance. Access is critical.”

Outsourcing a Complicated Design

The requirements for the GOES-R platform system were fairly complex. “I had a stack of requirements that I had to go through for the customer,” said Malacara. “The platforms are used to process a satellite that has high contamination requirements in a clean room setting.”  The system had to adhere to the following:

  • Be adjustable from 14’ to 16’
  • Have removable, adjustable diving boards
  • Incorporate sliders that could be extended from the top of the work stand

The facility with the platforms was also sensitive to magnetic fields, so the platforms had to be chromate coated and equipped with electrostatic discharge reels, ensuring connectivity throughout all components.

While Lockheed engineers are fully capable of designing work platforms of this caliber, they determined it would be more efficient, and better utilization of their resources, to outsource the project to a company experienced in work platform design. In addition, the project required the development and application of several new design concepts, and the business model Lockheed operates under isn’t conducive to small-scale prototype work. Malacara decided it was necessary to find an expert in the work platform industry that could partner with Lockheed’s design team to develop the complicated platforms required by the GOES-R project.

The decision to outsource wasn’t without risk, however. “I was taking a risk trusting this platform set with an outside company because if it came back with a problem in quality or functionality, I could be in trouble,” said Malacara. Malacara searched the internet for leaders in the work platform industry that had the design capabilities and knowledge necessary to work with his senior engineers. The vendor had to meet the standards and requirements of Lockheed, such as having the capability to perform the necessary analyses to prove the platforms would comply with OSHA standards and regulations, meet the required factors of safety, and complete all proof testing. He only considered vendors who welded to AWS standards and had the capacity, both in facility and production manpower, to deliver on the needs of the GOES-R project.

Upon initial sourcing of the project, Malacara connected with Spika’s Director of Sales, whose understanding of the details of the platforms made the initial conversations about Lockheed’s requirements uncomplicated. Malacara was especially interested in Spika’s design and manufacturing facility, as having both departments under one roof would make changes throughout the design and manufacturing process easy to accommodate.

Malacara’s team spent months working closely with Spika’s design team to develop a platform system that had cantilevered capabilities, could reconfigure quickly, and would adjust vertically, all while meeting the needs of the satellite technology and clean room requirements.

One particular challenge involved finding a way to easily adjust the sliders around the satellite so the satellite could rotate during manufacturing operations. Spika engineered a specially-designed gear-driven slider system approved for use in a clean room to make adjusting the sliders with precision possible. The new Controlled Precision Slider System utilized a crankshaft on top of the platform that allowed the user to easily and precisely set sliders around the satellite. When the satellite had to be repositioned, users could quickly crank the sliders away from the satellite. The system was also reconfigurable, as two of the height-adjustable stands could be disconnected from the tooling around the satellite and replaced with wing-specific stands.

Spika’s ability to quickly create, test, and implement new designs was critical to the success of the project. “Spika can make a complicated custom application that meets the need, and if it doesn’t work, they change it the next day and do a prototype of the development. It helps to get you quickly narrowed into the right solution,” said Malacara. “Spika’s design team was just like an extension of my design team.”

An Extension of the Team

The collaboration between Lockheed’s engineers and Spika’s design team resulted in a 14-stand system that adjusted from approximately 14’ – 16’. It included two diving boards that ran on linear bearing rails across the decks, adjusted up and down, and extended out and retracted in. The platform sliders were gear-operated, and the whole system was reconfigurable for access in a variety of situations. Finally, the system was fully compliant with clean room requirements.

The platform proved to be even more useful than originally anticipated. “The platform was designed for a specific task, but we found more uses for it than we ever thought,” said Malacara. And the Lockheed team was happy with the results. “I’ve had so many senior managers go up and down those platforms that are just impressed. We’ve shown them off. They’re impressed with your equipment and flexibility.”

At the completion of the project, Malacara wrote to Spika. “Please thank your team again for all their much appreciated hard work in working with Lockheed Martin and delivering the platform sets that have been and will be used to assemble and test the GOES-R Spacecraft. When it comes to working on the large spacecraft access is everything, and your product has gone above and beyond what we had planned for.”

Spika’s design team was just like an extension of my design team. – Jimmi Malacara, Lockheed Martin

Governor Names Spika 2013 Exporter of the Year

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Wood’s Powr-Grip/Spika Welding Receive Honors

Governor Steve Bullock announced winners of the 2013 Manufacturer of the Year and 2013 Exporter of the Year awards in Bozeman at the Manufacturing & International Trade Day yesterday. In prepared remarks, he said, “Today, I’m proud to be able to honor two outstanding Montana companies, not only for their successes, respectively, in manufacturing and exporting, but because of the immense amount of pride they take in their work.”

Wood’s Powr-Grip Gets Anniversary Present

Accepting the 2013 Manufacturer of the Year award for his company, Wood’s Powr-Grip, Bryan Wood said, “We are extremely grateful and honored. What really makes this unique is that it comes in a year when we are celebrating our company’s 50th anniversary. In fact, it was on this very date, May 29, 1964, when our Articles of Incorporation were signed!”

Wood’s Powr-Grip manufactures equipment which uses a vacuum to lift, hold, and position nonporous materials, including glass, plastics, engine valves, sheet metal, stone slabs, and appliances – all out of Laurel, Montana.

Welding Taking Montana to the World

Tom Spika accepted the 2013 Exporter of the Year award on behalf of Spika Welding and Manufacturing in Lewistown. They build aviation maintenance equipment and ship globally. “We are truly honored to receive this award,” said Spika. “We are proud to take Montana-made products to the world.” Spika was the recipient of the first-ever Manufacturer of the Year award for 2012 last year.

Manufacturing & International Trade Day Successful

On behalf of the Governor, Montana Commerce Director Meg O’Leary presented the awards at the Holiday Inn Bozeman as part of Manufacturing & International Trade Day, organized by the Montana Chamber of Commerce. The Manufacturer of the Year award is created by the Montana Manufacturing Council, a subsidiary of the State Chamber. The Exporter of the Year award is a product of the Montana District Export Council, part of the US Department of Commerce.

The second annual Manufacturing & International Trade Day included a tour of Simms Fishing, a talk by US Senator Jon Tester, presentations by Scott Mulhauser of the US Export-Import Bank, winners of the 2012 Manufacturing and Exporting awards, and seminars on export finance and manufacturing workforce.

Spika Receives Montana State Family Business Award

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Spika Design & Manufacturing received the Montana State Family Business Award for 2013 in the Medium Sized Business Category (30-50 employees).

“We’re honored to be recognized among many other outstanding businesses in the state,” stated Katie Spika.

The Family Business Program and Awards were established in 1994 as an outreach program through Montana State University College of Business. It offers education and information to the backbone of many Montana businesses, those that are owned and managed by families of Montana. This program allows small businesses to share ideas and concerns common to most small businesses.

Judging criteria included business growth and success, innovative business strategies and practices, contributions to community and industry, longevity, family-business linkage, succession preparedness, and multi-generation family business involvement.



Spika President to Lead Montana Manufacturing Council

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At the Montana Chamber of Commerce fall meeting in Kalispell, Tom Spika, President of Spika Welding and Manufacturing, was installed as Chairman of the Montana Manufacturing Council, a subsidiary of the MT Chamber of Commerce. This position also holds a seat on the MT Chamber board.

“I’m excited to be heading this manufacturing organization,” said Spika, “particularly now that we have formed an alliance with the Montanan Manufacturing Extension Center to bring broader-based support and advocacy to the state’s manufacturers.”

Tom envisions the MMC focusing on five key areas:

  • Legislative advocacy on behalf of Montana’s manufacturing sector
  • Promoting awareness of the contributions of manufacturing to the state’s economy and employment
  • Facilitating training and technology development to the state’s manufacturers
  • Encouraging and facilitating networking and interaction opportunities within the manufacturing community
  • Actively promoting industrial, technical, and manufacturing career paths to students to facilitate development of our future workforce

“I’m a true believer in the benefits of growing our manufacturing sector, both in the state and particularly in Central Montana,” said Spika. “Every job created by those selling a new or value-added product to customers outside of our area makes a very significant impact to our local economy.”

Spika Welding Wins First Montana Manufacturer of the Year Award

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Tom Spika and Spika Welding received the first-ever “Manufacturer of the Year” award today in Helena. The award was presented by the Montana Manufacturing Council, a subsidiary of the Montana Chamber of Commerce, at the biennial Trade & Manufacturing Day at the Capitol. Governor Steve Bullock attended the presentation.

“Spika Welding and Manufacturing is doing amazing work in the Heart of Montana,” said Webb Brown, President/CEO of the State Chamber. “Their maintenance stands for aerospace and military applications are a great example of new manufacturing in Montana.”

Spika Welding was also noted for their export business, selling in eight countries last year. Plus, their small, forty-plus employee company is a family enterprise, with Tom, wife Carol and daughter Katie involved in the business.

“It’s a humbling experience to get something like this (award) for a small company in the middle of Montana,” said Spika. “This recognizes that small companies can create and offer new employment opportunities to keep young people in our state and grow our communities and families.”

About Montana Manufacturing Council

The Montana Manufacturing Council (MMC) is the statewide association for manufacturers and their supporters. The MMC helps build manufacturing in Montana in several ways: connecting manufacturers and supporters to build business; advocating for legislation and rules that benefit manufacturing; supporting and promoting international trade; educating Montanans about the importance of manufacturing. Go to: www.MontanaManufacturingCouncil.com for details and photo.


Case Study: Custom Design Maintenance Stand for B-2 Bomber Windshield

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Spika won a solicitation to provide a maintenance stand to access the windshield of the B-2 Bomber. Following the success of the first platform, the remainder of the required platforms were sole-sourced to Spika.

The Problem

The United States Air Force needed a work platform to access the B-2 Spirit Bomber windshield for inspection, maintenance, and replacement. The platform had to meet several requirements:

  • It had to conform very precisely to the perimeter of the windshield as well as the angular slope of the nose of the aircraft.
  • Because of the LO (low observable) features of the aircraft, it was extremely important that the stand not make contact with the aircraft.
  • It had to have a C-frame design to allow the deck to cantilever over the nose of the aircraft and access the windshield.
  • It needed to have 24” (61 cm) of hydraulic height adjustability.
  • It needed to accommodate four workers at 200 lbs. (91 kg) each, plus 200 lbs. for tooling, for a 1000 lb. (454 kg) load rating.
  • It had to be able to be safely towed at five miles per hour.

The Air Force released a solicitation for the first unit and invited interested companies to send engineers to evaluate the requirements.

Due to the classified nature of the aircraft, no CAD drawings were available to facilitate design of the work platforms. In addition, there were very few areas that were easy to dimension from a baseline because of the complexity of the shape. Therefore, all measurements had to be taken manually, and with incredible precision.

The Solution

Spika proposed an aluminum work platform utilizing proprietary design features for safety, access, and efficiency. The design featured:

  • Lightweight, corrosion-resistant aluminum construction,
  • A work deck that conformed precisely to the nose of the aircraft without sliders,
  • Rubber bumpers around the front of the work platform to protect the aircraft from damage,
  • A hydraulic jack system that vertically adjusted the deck and stair by 24” (61 cm),
  • A height adjustable staircase that could be attached to either side of the stand using quick-release pins for tool- and FOD-free reconfiguration,
  • Safety yellow powder coated railings attached with camlocks for easy removal, reconfiguration, and reinstallation, and
  • Industrial-duty 12” casters with brakes and index locks for ease of movement.


The Results

The work platform worked so well that the Air Force decided to purchase the remainder of the platforms through a sole-source contract. In addition, Spika’s B-2 Windshield Maintenance Stand has proven to be one of the most highly used work stands in the program at Whiteman.

That stand of yours is the number one requested item here – still. – Equipment User

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