Aero Systems Engineering provides engine test cells and test equipment for a variety of aircraft and industrial engines; designs and supplies wind tunnels and provides test services for aerospace vehicles and propulsion systems. David Soyka reports on this high-flying, full service aerodynamic research and engineering firm.
Among its many claims to fame, St. Paul, Minn., was the childhood home of cartoonist Charles M. Schulz, creator of Peanuts and, in particular, the character Snoopy, which from atop his dog house, imagined battling World War I German flying ace the Red Baron. While Snoopy may not have had need for another St. Paul resident, Aero Systems Engineering, to keep him flying, most aircraft engine manufacturers rely on the firm to ensure their products stay aloft.
The company, commonly called ASE, was founded in 1967, and since then has amassed a track record of innovative design and successful project completions for engine test cells and test equipment used all over the world. Indeed, ASE has designed and constructed over 28 turnkey test facilities, delivered over 150 control and instrumentation systems and 550 engine adapters in over 65 countries (75 percent of its business is international). However, as Todd Abrahamson, vice president of marketing & sales points out, “In 1993, ASE acquired wind tunnel designer and supplier FluiDyne Engineering Corporation, which was founded in 1952. So, in some sense, our history dates back even further than our official 40th anniversary, which we celebrated last year.”
Abrahamson notes that engineers from another Minneapolis-based engine test cell company left there in order to start up ASE, and the two companies continue to compete until this day. “Oddly enough, the two major large engine test engineering companies are located here in the Twin Cities area; the third significant competitor is across the lakes in Ottawa.” After various changes of ownership over the years, in 2006, ASE was acquired by Tonka Bay Equity Partners LLC of Minnetonka, Minn., and, between ASE and Celtech, currently employs over 250 people.
“We’re primarily an engineering firm,” Abrahamson explains. “Though we do some assembly of components, we’re not a manufacturer. We provide project management in which we arrange for
subcontractors to construct facilities for turnkey projects.” ASE has three main product lines: 1) the design and construction of engine test cells, 2) design and supply of wind tunnel facilities and 3) aerodynamic and acoustic test services.
The primary product line is engine test cells and test equipment, primarily for aircraft engines including turbofan, turbojet/afterburning, turboshaft, and turboprop, as well as APU (auxiliary power unit), and industrial engines. According to Abrahamson, “ASE engineers design a turnkey facility to OEM specifications. We also have a team of site supervisors who oversee the entire construction of the facility. In addition, we design and supply all the specialized engine test equipment, including the thrust stand, engine adapters, and complete computerized control and instrumentation system. We install and completely calibrate all systems. And, ASE provides follow-on customer support to maintain the facility in the best operating condition. We have the widest range of capabilities to provide everything from a design to total system integration.”
The wind tunnel and aerotest lab business came about with the acquisition of FluiDyne, notable for, among other projects, its work on the Apollo moon landing program’s re-entry vehicle during the 1970s. “FluiDyne was a nice complement to our existing range of capabilities,” Abrahamson notes. “Over the years, our success in the wind tunnel market has helped leverage additional business in engine test cells and vice versa.”
ASE designs and builds wind tunnel facilities for all Mach numbers, including low speed, subsonic, transonic, supersonic, and hypersonic. “Our primary wind tunnel business areas include turnkey projects, both new facilities and facility upgrades, engine/rocket altitude test facilities, high temperature storage heaters, and associated systems and components,” Abrahamson says. “These days, most of our wind tunnel projects are focused on speeds around Mach 0.2 – Mach 4, though we’ve designed tunnels capable of operating up to mach 25.”
ASE’s third line of business, the FluiDyne Aerotest Lab, provides 10 active wind tunnel test channels ranging from static to hypersonic velocities, complete capabilities for designing and manufacturing subscale engine nozzle models, and the ability to design and test engine test cell scale models to validate design parameters. Primary test lab business areas include engine exhaust system performance, unsteady processes (acoustics, turbulence and vibration), CFD (computational fluid dynamics) validation, exhaust plume simulation, flow visualization, icing tests, cascade tests, and probe calibrations.
BUSINESS IS TAKING OFF
While you might think the current woes facing the airline industry might have an adverse effect on ASE, the opposite is actually the case. “Like everyone else these days, engine OEMs are focusing on their core competencies and outsourcing functions where they don’t have the in-house expertise and facilities,” Abrahamson says. “Our relationship with most OEMs is such that they view us as an extension of their engineering staff. We’re dealing with mature products in a mature marketplace. One of the things our customers are concerned about, even more so than cost, is risk management. One of our strengths is our range of experience. We’ve constructed everything from small facilities to very large ones. We have the skills, strengths, and resources with a demonstrated track record of proven performance to deliver projects on time and budget. It just makes more sense for the OEMs to partner with us rather than make the considerable capital expenditures to develop these capabilities themselves. Particularly in the light of what’s going on in the world economy and rising oil prices, any way we can help reduce cost for a customer makes us a valuable asset.”
This is one reason why ASE’s sales last year reached record levels. Another is that those same rising oil prices are driving increased interest in developing new, more fuel efficient engines. “It’s a great opportunity for us,” Abrahamson says. “A related trend is to develop more environmentally friendly engines. All the engine manufacturers are looking at fuel efficient and alternative fuel designs and we see a lot of potential new business in this area. New engine development is one factor that drives our business.”
ASE has also expanded into the military sector with its recent acquisition of Celtech, which rebuilds, refurbishes, and upgrades mobile jet engine and turboprop test stands primarily for the U.S. Air Force. The company is headquartered in Carlsbad, N.M. “Traditionally, we haven’t done a lot of military work, so the acquisition of Celtech was strategic in that it provides access to a new customer base. In addition, their technology focuses on low-cost outdoor test stands typically used at small air depots, which helps to further broaden our product line. Also, we’re looking at their cost efficient processes for ideas on how we can supply our equipment and technologies at a lower cost.”
The flight plan ASE is filing for its future anticipates continued growth, both organically and through acquisitions. “Our owners are always looking at new opportunities, and if there’s a prospect that improves our capabilities and better serves our customers, we’ll take a closer look,” Abrahamson says.
Those capabilities are what set ASE apart, according to Abrahamson. “We’re not just an equipment supplier. We’re a high tech engineering company offering a broad range of services that complement and expand upon the competencies of our customers. That’s what makes us stand out in the market and has enabled us to survive some of the inevitable down cycles of the industry.”
And this is why, in an environment when so many companies can’t get off the ground, ASE continues to attain high altitudes of success.