Manufacturer Profile: Universal Avionics Retrofits the Corporate Fleet One Bizjet at a Time

 - May 2, 2013, 12:35 AM

MD Helicopters’ selection of Selection of Universal Avionics to design and build a next-generation flight deck for the MD Explorer twin-engine helicopter represents a major milestone in the avionics maker’s 32-year history–the company’s first integrated flight deck to be delivered as original equipment from an OEM’s aircraft assembly line–but Universal’s main revenue source will continue to be retrofitting the flight decks of business aircraft, helicopters and airliners.

“Our bread and butter is retrofit, although we do a fair amount of [individual displays delivered via] OEM as well,” said Steve Pagnucco, general manager of manufacturing at Universal’s sole manufacturing plant, located in Tucson, Ariz. “We work closely with the customer on all integration issues. It’s engineering-intensive because every application is different…everybody’s aircraft has different avionics and systems in it. That’s what we do better than anybody else: figure out all those [integration] challenges.”

Because Universal supplies relatively few boxes to OEM assembly lines, the company does not build to stock. Instead, it works on a build-to-order system. While this philosophy suggests long lead times, Pagnucco says the opposite is true.

“We’re a low-volume, high-mix operation,” he said. “We manufacture 30 different product lines on a build-as-needed basis. But we build some circuit boards ahead of time. So final assemblies are all built in less than a week.”

Located near Tucson International Airport (KTUS), Universal’s 60,000-sq-ft facility is unlike most other avionics manufacturing plants. Specialized anti-static carpet covering the entire manufacturing area provides a softer and quieter environment for approximately 60 employees who build avionics equipment ranging from synthetic vision systems (SVS) to flight management systems (FMS), multifunction and dedicated displays, cockpit data and voice recorders, air data conversion units, radio control units and more. Robotic machines efficiently solder millions of circuit board connections every week. A proprietary self-propelled monorail system shuttles circuit boards from station to station during final assembly, and an optical inspection machine containing five cameras ensures the right parts have been placed correctly on the circuit boards. Electronic work instructions integrated into the company’s manufacturing resource planning system simplify inventory tracking by automatically reducing part counts as employees complete each instruction.

“We’ve taken all of the principles of lean manufacturing and Six Sigma and integrated them into the way we do business,” said Pagnucco, citing the company’s material-handling system as another example. “We use a simple and effective two-bin [parts] system. When one bin is emptied, a full bin of the same parts slides into its place, and material handling fills the empty bin before it’s needed. We don’t have armies of people picking kits.”

The high degree of automation is one factor in Universal’s quest for quality.

“Quality control is a huge challenge,” Pagnucco said. “Many companies outsource their circuit board assemblies, but we find that manufacturing them in-house allows greater control over quality. We are routinely first to market with new products because we keep manufacturing in-house.”

Flight-test Operations

One example of a new product that Universal is bringing to market is its AHS-525 attitude heading reference system (AHRS) unit, scheduled to be FAA technical standard order (TSO) certified in the second quarter for use in business aircraft and helicopters. Universal completed flight-testing the new AHRS unit in last year’s fourth quarter using the company’s King Air F90, one of two Universal flight-test aircraft hangared at KTUS.

“[Type Inspection Authorization] TIA flight-testing for certification is always a minority, maybe five to 10 percent, of the total flight hours that we fly for a specific program,” said Paul Damschen, Universal’s manager of airworthiness and flight operations. “Most of our flight-test work is research and development.”

Damschen, an experienced experimental flight-test pilot with time in more than 80 aircraft models from airliners, bizjets and turboprops to World War II vintage fighters and bombers, manages the two-aircraft (King Air F90 and Citation VII), three-pilot flight department, which puts several hundred flight hours on the company aircraft each year. Both aircraft are retrofitted with Universal Avionics equipment and can be used for customer demos and corporate travel, but spend most of their time flying R&D hours.

“We have to test our products against other systems that exist in various aircraft,” said Damschen. “Although specifications exist, that doesn’t stop manufacturers from tweaking or changing code. For example, with the AHRS 525, we initially found that certain autopilot systems wouldn’t engage. Some autopilot systems have tracer systems to see if the synchro systems work, but if you don’t know it, you can’t design for it. After those R&D flights, we added the tracer signal to the AHRS software to get the autopilot to engage.”

Not all product testing can be done in the air, however. For instruments that must thrive in a high-vibration environment such as in a helicopter flight deck, Universal developed a vibration table to simulate those conditions. Costing upwards of $100,000, the four-foot by four-foot table can induce vibrations in a range of frequencies and amplitudes.

“The TSO environmental qualification sheet lists several tests that require specialty equipment such as the vibration table,” said Damschen, who notes that Universal conducts nearly all of the environmental testing in-house, including hot and cold soaks. “About the only testing we have to send to an external facility is lightning.”

Although Universal conducts all manufacturing and flight-testing from its Tucson facility, the company maintains additional engineering and/or customer service facilities in Wichita; Redmond, Wash.; Duluth, Ga.; Switzerland, Singapore and the UK. Universal also provides pilot training on its various business aircraft systems in Tucson and Wichita and operates a repair station at the Tucson facility.