NAPLES — Standing in front of a shiny T53 helicopter engine, Mike Turner discussed how his helicopter engine repair company wants to soar to new heights.
He shared where his Naples-based company, Air Technology Group, has been and where it’s going. Turner, the company’s CEO, president and founder, is all about innovation.
“We are innovating. We want to do more parts,” he said during a community tour of his business off Horseshoe Drive on Thursday.
The tour was the third of its kind of leading edge companies as part of Project Innovation. The project, launched by the Economic Development Council of Collier County at the end of last year, has brought state and national experts in to help shape a new blueprint for economic development. Besides the public tours of innovative companies, such as Air Technology Group, there have been radio shows and podcasts with local innovative thinkers.
Air Technology Group specializes in T53 and Rolls-Royce 250 engines.
While the focus is on manufacturing and repairing turbine engines, the company also fixes and builds transmissions and other helicopter components from gear boxes to rotor hubs. It is investing in new state-of-the-art equipment to expand its capabilities and working to make its operations “lean” so it can do more in less time.
“There are a lot of moving parts in a helicopter and they all have to work together. Interruptions are not allowed,” Turner said to a group of about 20 taking the tour.
He explained how the tolerances, or dimensions, in the wheels of the engine are so small.
“It’s smaller than one strand of hair, my thinning hair,” Turner said, motioning to the top of his head and bringing laughter from the group. “That’s how small the dimensions are.”
He talked about how fast the wheels in the engine move, making up to 800 rotations per second. To help the group visualize it, he told them to imagine what would happen to a hamster in a ball at those speeds.
Helicopters require precise inspections, repairs and assemblies.
Customers want repairs because new parts are so costly, Turner said. By getting parts repaired, they can save as much as 70 percent, he said.
The engines the company repairs are used in helicopters that fight war, put out fires, lift logs, spray fields and train pilots. The T53 engine was developed during the Vietnam War.
Clients come from all over the country, including Latin America, Europe and Asia. They primarily operate the Huey, Cobra and Kiowa OH58 helicopters.
“This is a good place to invite people,” Turner said of Naples.
During the tour, the group saw how parts are laid out on a long table and then carefully inspected, one by one. There’s a separate room just to check out bearings, which are critical to the engine’s operations.
The group saw how a coordinate measuring machine works to determine the accuracy of the parts. Bill O’Neill, chairman of the Economic Development Council, asked how the measuring was done without such a machine.
“We did a lot of math,” said Art Boiteau, quality manager. ‘For us, this is quite a tool. It saves a lot of time.”
In the inspection area, Boiteau showed how some parts are submerged in a tank of liquid, put in the oven and then in a black-light booth to reveal cracks. He said a lot of problems they find are caused by mistakes made by others in assembly. People, he said, are “banging it together.”
“Remind me not to ride in a helicopter that’s been banged together,” O’Neill said with a nervous smile.
Greg Murray, the company’s controller, discussed the “lean” transformation, referring to its efforts to improve the efficiency of its manufacturing operations. One of the biggest improvements has been in how parts are handled.
In the past, employees complained they spent too much time looking for parts and that it took them longer to find the parts than to assemble them.
Now, there’s a long table in the inspection area where all the parts are laid out for a particular project. Once they’ve been inspected they go in another area.
Wooden boxes are used to keep parts together that go together.
With its lean efforts, production has increased by 20 percent, Murray said.
More improvements are coming soon, including an expansion of the inspection area. Instead of looking up FAA standards in a book, employees one day will be able to hyperlink to the rules they are looking for online, Murray said.
Craig O’Connor, an aircraft turbine machinist, said he had the best job at the company. He makes parts to fix parts. He uses two machines — a cutter and a lathe. He showed off a couple of thin reamers he uses to make holes bigger and more accurate.
“If you’ve ever heard of someone getting reamed out. This is what it is,” he said, with the tools spread out in his hand.
He said he “works in hairs” because dimensions are so small.
He was working on getting a metal piece that was stuck in the support case for a transmission out of a tiny hole, hoping not to break anything. He was trying to repair some studs in the case.
The tour included a look at “Test Cell No. 1,” where engines are tested before and after they are overhauled. After they are rebuilt, they undergo a 4.5-hour test, which uses up 200 gallons of fuel, explained Charlie Harrison, production manager.
He pointed to a red emergency stop button on the testing equipment that can be pushed if anything goes wrong. One observed called it, the “Easy Button,” because it looked like the one seen in the commercials for office retailer Staples.
The goal is to get engines in and out within 45 days, Harrison said.
The company _ with 25 employees _ can turn out three to four engines a month, Turner said.
Air Technology Group includes Air Technology Inc., an aviation parts company, and Air Technology Engines, a certified repair station.
Turner founded Air Technology Inc. in 1974 with his family in New Jersey. The company relocated to Naples in 1991.
Naples was seen as an ideal location because of its closeness to Latin America.
Since moving here the company has expanded twice. The offices in Naples take up 40,000 square feet. There are sales agents and representatives around the world.
The company looks to hire locally. It has formed a partnership with the Lorenzo Walker Institute to help train and certify local mechanics. Several students have been hired.
“We want to grow this business and hire more people in Naples,” Turner said.
Danny Morgan, president and CEO of Bank of Florida in Naples, was impressed by the tour.
“I think it’s fantastic _ very efficiently run, very clean,” he said of the operations.
He once flew helicopters for the Army _ the same ones that Air Technology is fixing for other customers. He liked seeing the other side of how the engines and other parts are maintained by a company like Air Technology.
“If something goes wrong and you’re in the sky it’s a real problem,” he said. “It’s not like when you’re in a car and you can just pull to the side of the road.”