Long before an airplane lifts off, engineers and designers must create every working part. Step inside Rockford’s Ingenium Aerospace and discover what drives our region’s manufacturing prowess.
It always begins with a blank sheet of paper.
From a big idea and a blank canvas, a massive flying vehicle is born. For that vehicle to become a reality, a team of designers and engineers must create not only the outside shell, but every moving piece inside.
The Boeing 747 has about 6 million parts, from landing gear, engines and bathrooms to motion controls and fasteners. When an air-framer like Boeing creates a new product, it farms out the design and manufacture of many parts and systems to smaller companies like Ingenium Aerospace, 5389 International Dr., Rockford. A designer and producer of motion control devices, Ingenium builds products for military, space and commercial vehicles, for clients like Virgin Galactic, Airbus and U.S. military contractors.
For Ingenium to create a custom motion control device is no small task. In a process that takes between seven and 30 months, the engineering team will invent, design, prototype, test, build, re-test and certify their product, demanding of themselves excruciatingly specific standards. It’s likely that this piece will be flying for 40 or 50 years, so every detail counts.
Engineers, in all of their forms – aeronautical, electrical, mechanical, chemical – are the generators of our industrial creations. No part of the manufacturing process is unaffected by their talents. Beyond industrial work, engineers also design bridges and roads, nuclear reactors and systems for extracting petroleum.
Engineers are well-paid, highly educated people, and key players in Rockford’s economy, where nearly one-fifth of the local workforce is employed by the manufacturing sector. With nearly 200 aerospace suppliers within 150 miles of Rockford, engineers are essential to our unique network of highly specialized production.
“There’s a significant amount of procedural and process diligence required of an aerospace-capable design and manufacturing company, and being in the Rockford area definitely supports that mission,” says Darrin Kopala, general manager and principal at Ingenium. “We have local manufacturers that are hungry for these opportunities, because other companies have sent this type of work offshore.”
Six Steps to Production
Six steps. It takes six precision steps, each involving constant discussion, analysis and approval, for something to enter production. The process starts when Ingenium receives a list of specifications from a potential client; that list may be as short as an email, or as long as multiple three-ring binders.
“In Phase 1, the client defines, ‘Here’s my vehicle, here’s what I need my vehicle to do,’” explains Kopala, an engineer who began his career in drafting. “Ingenium must come back and tell us how to design this to fit the available space, and make the vehicle perform the way the client needs it to.”
Throughout Phase 2, engineers refine their ideas, explaining in detail how they’ll satisfy the customer’s demands. If Ingenium wins the bid, then begins Phase 3, in which engineers and the client’s experts spend three or four months cooperatively defining and reviewing their initial designs.
“We still don’t have any detailed drawings, we still have nothing to manufacture at this point, but we have something that went from this blank sheet of paper to a defined concept that allows us to start doing detailed drawings,” explains Kopala. “Then, we move toward a critical design review. Prior to that, we detail all of the drawings, specify all of the processes and procedures, and perform all of the hardcore detailed design analyses.”
Through Phase 4, engineers refine their design based on a battery of tests. Using computer software, they analyze their product for stress, strain and material capabilities, among other processes. Not until Phase 5 is there an actual, moving, working part – a prototype of the final product.
Then comes the fun part, in Phase 5, when engineers put the product through the gauntlet. Inside Ingenium’s 20,000 square-foot Rockford facility, an entire wall of computerized test stations is dedicated to determining whether a product does what it’s supposed to do.
“We’re going to vibrate this, we’re going to hit it with high-energy radiated emissions, we’re going to rain on it for a certain number of hours,” says Kopala. “Then, we’re going to run it hot, we’re going to run it cold, we’ll give it a direct or indirect lightning test, and then, we’ll perform any additional tailored testing.” Then, the hardware will be installed on an experimental prototype vehicle.
If something doesn’t go as expected, engineers step backward and re-evaluate their work. Finally, after months of designing and testing, the part is approved and ready for production – Phase 6. Although Ingenium conceives, draws, tests, assembles and services its products, it leaves the manufacturing aspect – parts machining – to outside suppliers, most of them based in or near Rockford.
“When the manufactured parts arrive, we’ll inspect them, we’ll inventory them, then we’ll pull together kits and control the entire assembly and testing process,” says Kopala. “We’ll build the final product, test it, provide a certificate of conformance, and then continue to improve upon it during its life cycle.”
From the Ground Up
Kopala and other engineers founded Ingenium in 2006, tapping into the Rockford area’s specialized experience in aerospace production. Previously, Kopala had risen through the ranks at an aerospace engineering firm in Skokie, Ill.
“I thought we’d win something simple, like a utility actuation contract, just to get our feet wet,” he says. “But no, our first contract was primary flight controls for a captive carry vehicle and a commercial space vehicle. We created the entire infrastructure from a blank sheet of paper. We received our ISO9001 and AS9100 Quality Management Systems certifications early on. We received our security clearances to work on defense contracts. We also installed and certified our FAA repair station, so it really created an opportunity to test everything that our highly experienced folks had in their backgrounds, and put it to work every day.”
Ingenium’s 14 full-time associates have extensive experience with other Rockford-area aerospace companies, such as Woodward and United Technologies. Steve Carter, chief financial officer and a principal, joined Ingenium in 2010, just a few years after retiring as a Woodward executive. For a small company, Ingenium remains globally connected, working on three continents, thanks to its associates’ industry network and experience.
“Virtually all of our associates have tremendous contacts, and most of our success has been through word-of-mouth,” says Kopala. “We’ve all come from somewhere else, and our associates are well-known in the industry for their capability and past successful programs.”
For both Carter and Kopala, there’s a continued interest in keeping the company in Rockford, to take advantage of the region’s strong network of aerospace suppliers and engineering talent. Inside that growing network, suppliers utilize several highly advanced certifications that enable aerospace production to happen here, and serve clients around the globe. Accordingly, Ingenium stays closely connected to the aerospace network established by the Rockford Area Economic Development Council (RAEDC).
“Having other aerospace companies in town, especially larger ones, attracts people to the area,” says Carter. “We know that some of these people may not want a big-company environment, or people who worked in that environment for many years may want to try something else. We offer the opportunity to totally utilize all of an individual’s talents.”
Inside Ingenium’s engineering office, Raoul Castro examines the computer design of a small airplane part. Colored in a rainbow of blues, greens, oranges and yellows, this design reveals the areas most susceptible to stress and fatigue. But just because he designs airplane parts doesn’t mean that Castro, or his co-workers, are aerospace engineers.
“Aerospace engineers focus on aerodynamics of the vehicle for air-framers such as Boeing and Airbus,” explains Kopala. “Companies like ours are full of electrical, mechanical and software engineers who define, develop and produce the components and systems that populate the inside of these vehicles.”
Of the 700 classified aerospace engineers in Illinois, about 130 of them work here in Rockford, according to data from the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Illinois companies employ about 9,000 electrical engineers and 8,800 mechanical engineers. Rockford-area companies employ a total of about 650 mechanical and electrical engineers and hundreds of other types of engineers.
Given the strict standards and exacting detail, engineering requires a strong background in science and math. Most Ingenium engineers have bachelor’s or master’s degrees; designers and drafters have a degree, if not an equivalent experience.
Because they’re highly educated, engineers are well paid. According to state data, Rockford-area mechanical engineers earn an average of $34 an hour, or nearly $71,000 per year. By comparison, the U.S. median wage for a mechanical engineer is about $80,500.
Engineers are one of Illinois’ most in-demand occupations, but not everyone will land a permanent job. When Ingenium needs a specific expertise for a limited amount of time, it hires contract employees with those qualifications. One time, the company brought in nearly 40 contractors from every part of the U.S. in order to fulfill a certain order.
“We salt our technical needs with contractors when we have a need for them,” says Carter. “We keep our full-time associate base at a smaller level, because we don’t want to be in the cycle of hiring and firing by program.”
Since it also assembles and repairs these parts, Ingenium has a support team of office staff and product assemblers. They, too, are well-educated and possess a high degree of electrical and mechanical aptitude.
“In many cases, our assemblers have come straight out of the military, or have fleet-level support experience,” explains Kopala. “They could have an A&P license, which is for aircraft maintenance, and will need to have a certification for J-STD soldering.”
Assembler Haron Carey has earned advanced soldering certification for aerospace-related products and systems. At a desk in Ingenium’s production center, he examines a set of actuators destined for the cargo doors of an Airbus plane. Standing about 8 inches tall and 2 inches wide, this little actuator holds about 135 unique parts – metal casing, wires, diodes, limit switches. At the next table, there are bins of tiny screws, nuts and washers destined for other parts. Nearby, there’s a product the size of a lip balm. Inside are ball bearings no bigger than the dot of this i.
Recruitment & Retention
If Rockford expects to maintain its engineering strength and recruit employees to these high-skill jobs, then continued community improvement is a must, says Carter.
“As one who’s been actively involved in bringing people into this community, I know that the path Rockford is on, toward change, is important,” says Carter. “It needs to be a community that’s attractive for people to live. Whether it’s Rockford or a nearby community, people should feel comfortable and safe, and they should be offered a chance to make a good living, live where they want and how they want, and successfully raise a family.”
Carter sees recent curriculum improvements inside Rockford Public Schools as a good starting point, but says there’s still work to be done on the fronts of intergovernmental relations and crime reduction.
Another step in the right direction comes through Rockford’s Joint Institute of Engineering & Technology (JiET-A), an internship program led by RAEDC’s aerospace network. Available to area dual-credit high school and commuter college students, the program enables young people to obtain work experience at several area aerospace firms. So far, JiET-A is available to students at Rock Valley College, Northern Illinois University, Rockford University, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and Kishwaukee College.
Kopala lives in Arlington Heights and used to work in Skokie. He’s commuted to Rockford for the past eight years. Accustomed to bumper-to-bumper traffic, Kopala says he’s continually amazed by the difference between there and here.
“I think the outside perception of Rockford is much more negative than it could be or should be, based on what I’m seeing,” he says. “Somehow, there needs to be a much bigger focus on changing that external perception of the area, to show a more accurate portrayal of what’s happening in Rockford. That, in and of itself, will help to bring talent.”
A lifelong Rockford resident, Carter agrees. “We’ve got enough people emphasizing the negatives,” he says. “We need to recognize the good things we have. I’ve talked to people who have moved here from all over the country, and they say, ‘It’s the best place we’ve ever lived!’ And probably nine out of 10 locals say, ‘It is?’ It’s because many local residents have never lived anywhere else.”
“I grew up in the inner city of Chicago,” says Kopala. “The inner city is much worse than anything I see in Rockford. It’s disappointing to me, seeing the external perceptions of Rockford. You ought to try Rockford, before you pass judgment, because it’s really a pretty nice location.”
Out of Thin Air
In a corner of the Ingenium production center sit several long tubular mechanisms – flight controls for an experimental commercial space vehicle. Smudged by actual space travel, these pieces have survived incredible testing criteria. Their predecessors endured extreme heat and cold, and were pushed to their mechanical and electrical breaking points.
Open up the long tube encasing its inner components, and you find threaded rods, parts that turn, parts that support movement in the event of a failure. Before they joined the tail of Richard Branson’s spaceship, they were simply ideas, sketched onto a blank piece of paper.
“We don’t have catalog items,” says Kopala. “All we know is that device is going on a vehicle in a certain location and doing a specific function, because the vehicle needs this system.”
The rest is up to the imagination.