(Bloomberg) -- A small aerospace equipment maker accused Boeing Co. of stealing technology for proprietary tools used to install engines on NASA’s new moon rocket, bolts on Dreamliner jets and fasteners on the International Space Station that don’t leak.
Wilson Aerospace, based in Fort Collins, Colorado, was Boeing’s partner on several projects over the past decade, including for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, according to a federal lawsuit late Tuesday in Washington state.
In 2014, Wilson helped Boeing with engine installation on NASA’s Space Launch System, the Colorado company said. But after about two years, Boeing ended the contract and cut off communication with Wilson after “brazenly stealing” technology, which led to misuse of a specialized torque wrench that could “put lives at risk,” Wilson alleged in the suit.
Other partnerships also soured over Boeing’s theft of Wilson technology, according to the lawsuit. Wilson claims it designed a tool to install bolts and fasteners on Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner starting in 2012, and alleged misuse of its stolen torquing tool led to leaks aboard the International Space Station. Wilson is seeking unspecified monetary damages.
“This lawsuit seeks to hold Boeing accountable for the repeated and deliberate misappropriation and infringement of Wilson’s intellectual property, and to prevent Boeing from doing the same to other victims,” the Colorado company said in its complaint.
In a statement on Wednesday, Boeing said the “lawsuit is rife with inaccuracies and omissions. We will vigorously defend against this in court.”
NASA said in a separate statement that it “is not a party to this particular case, and it is not appropriate for the agency to comment on pending litigation.”
Boeing is the primary contractor on the SLS, a massive new rocket NASA plans to use to send humans back to the moon this decade. SLS has suffered from cost overruns and delays since work began in 2011. The first launch in 2022 sent an uncrewed capsule around the moon, and another is set for as early as 2024 with four astronauts.
The SLS rocket partnership was dissolved before Wilson could share with Boeing the full instructions for how to use the tools Wilson had invented, which could lead to safety problems with the SLS, according to the lawsuit.
According to Wilson, Boeing was struggling in 2014 to figure out how to safely attach the SLS’s three massive RS-25 engines — the same ones used on the Space Shuttle — and the problem was threatening billions in revenue for the aerospace giant if it couldn’t pass a critical design review by NASA slated for 2015.
That’s when Boeing reached out to Wilson about using its flagship product — the fluid fitting torque device — a wrench made “for exactly this type of situation” and operating in tight narrow spaces, according to the complaint.
“Wilson offered Boeing an answer to its ongoing problem that would permit a safe, efficient installation of the engines onto the SLS rocket,” Wilson said.
Boeing partnered with Wilson, revised its engine installation plan, and then completed the design review, which resulted in NASA allowing Boeing to proceed with the SLS program, according to the lawsuit.
In its agreement to work with Boeing, Wilson said it took steps to protect its intellectual property and copyrighted design information.
But the Colorado firm claims Boeing tried to replicate the torque tool using demonstrations and proprietary information provided by Wilson. In 2016, Boeing tried to stop work with Wilson, pay less than it had agreed for the work, and demanded Wilson sign over rights to the torque tool, according to the suit.
When Wilson refused, Boeing canceled their contract and denied any connection to the company, the lawsuit claims.
Wilson alleges Boeing’s copies of its technology resulted in “mismatched tools of inferior quality” that created risks for astronauts who are unaware of “the unsafe equipment and vehicles manufactured by or at the direction of Boeing.”
The case is Wilson Aerospace v. Boeing, 23-cv-00847, US District Court, Western District of Washington (Seattle).
--With assistance from Julie Johnsson.
(Updates with comment from NASA.)
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