From its home base in Loves Park, Ill., this designer and manufacturer has earned an international reputation for improving our world’s water.
How many Midwestern manufacturers can say their product is operating on every continent? Count Aqua-Aerobic Systems Inc., 6306 N. Alpine Road, in Loves Park, Ill., among them. The company’s wastewater treatment solutions are needed wherever humans live.
From Rockford to Incheon, this company’s products are most often used to treat municipal wastewater – the stuff you flush down the toilet – but its technologies also treat industrial wastewater, such as runoff from a dairy farm or dyes from a Levi’s jeans factory. Both the industrial world and the developing world need its products.
Fully one-third of Aqua-Aerobic Systems’ business is outside of North America, and about half of that is in China, says Bob Wimmer, president and CEO. Much of the rest is in Korea, India, Europe and Australia.
“The thing about what we do for a living is that it helps the world and local populations to change the economic structure,” says Wimmer. “You can’t have economic growth without clean and disease-free drinking water.”
Foreign markets are supplying ample business to local manufacturers, thereby strengthening greater Rockford’s economic recovery. Local manufacturers employ about one-fifth of our region’s workforce.
During 2013, area companies including Aqua-Aerobic sent a combined $2.53 billion in products to foreign countries, according to federal data compiled by the Rockford Area Economic Development Corporation and the Rockford Region Economic Development District. That same year, our region’s exports to Canada and Mexico exploded, growing about 82 percent since 2012.
Around our region, exporters and importers alike benefit from Rockford’s Foreign Trade Zone No. 176, a federal designation that reduces the barriers for cargo to clear U.S. Customs.
As Aqua-Aerobic has long understood, the Rockford area’s unique skill sets and industries are still competitive in the global marketplace.
“Exporting is one of those things that not only helps the Illinois economy, but also sets us apart from other manufacturers that may not have as much of an exporting presence,” says Cheryl Kunz, director of marketing at Aqua-Aerobic Systems. “We currently have several international partners around the world who have a license to manufacture our equipment for their territories, but there are other areas where our independent representatives promote and sell Aqua-Aerobic technologies within their territories, and in which customers receive products directly from our Loves Park facility.”
Securing a Niche
Aqua-Aerobic’s headquarters is less a production center than a think tank. That’s because its staff focuses more on applied engineering and its related research and development, design, installation and operation of products and technologies. Accordingly, equipment production is largely outsourced – not to foreign countries, but to manufacturers in the greater Rockford area.
Rather than building the equipment that treats wastewater, Aqua-Aerobic focuses on applied engineering – the design, installation and operation of treatment systems and products.
“When I came here 16 years ago, we did all of our own manufacturing,” says Wimmer. “But I’ve learned that it never pays to do anything we don’t add real value to. Our value-added is the technology. The actual manufacture of what we do with the tanks and piping – there’s nothing special to it. If you take the 135 people we have here and add the multiplier of our suppliers, who are mostly within 20 miles of here, we can affect a lot of people here in Rockford.”
Local suppliers contribute to all of Aqua-Aerobic’s domestic products and many of its foreign orders, but in Switzerland and China, the company has teamed up with manufacturers that are closer to its customer base. In those cases, engineers in Rockford send their prints and designs to the manufacturer, who then oversees production and distribution.
Aqua-Aerobic hasn’t always been focused solely on process. The company began in 1969 as the manufacturer of an innovative approach to aerating wastewater, using a mechanical surface aerator that could oxygenate the water.
“Our product featured a motor, one-piece, continuous shaft and propeller,” explains Wimmer. “This design eliminated issues with clogging couplings, unlike other brands of surface aerators. We became the leader in mechanical, high-speed surface aeration.”
Over time, as government regulation of wastewater treatment evolved, so too did Aqua-Aerobic Systems and its equipment. Wimmer says the company is still a top supplier of mechanical aerators, but its product line has diversified to include many filtration devices that can refine wastewater into drinking water.
“Our biggest opportunities today are in the area of reuse – taking treated wastewater and getting it to drinking water standards,” says Wimmer. “Or, you can use it as a nonpotable source, such as irrigation on a golf course. You’ll find it’s the hottest thing in California.”
From Toilet to Tap
What exactly happens when you flush the toilet, drain your bathwater, or wash your hands? Unless your home has a septic system, your sludge travels through sewer pipes to a wastewater treatment center, into a system designed by the likes of Aqua-Aerobic Systems.
In Rockford, your wastewater travels by a gravity-fed pipe toward the sewage treatment plant. The water’s first stops are to the rag wash and the grit building, where heavy debris – such as toilet paper and gravel – is filtered from the water and dried out. Rag debris is sent to the landfill.
From the grit building, wastewater is piped into a settlement tank or clarifier, where gravity naturally strains more debris. It takes about 4.5 hours for this slow-traveling water to move on to its next destination, says Dan Pollard, operation lead person for the Rock River Water Reclamation District. Inside the clarifier, a rake rotates through the tank, skimming lighter debris and grease from the surface and scraping heavier sediment from the bottom.
The separated water is still pretty dirty, so it’s sent to a primary filtration pond, where a simple biological environment consumes your waste.
“You can’t just throw a bunch of chemicals into the wastewater and expect it to change,” says Kunz, who leads seminars on Aqua-Aerobic’s products and systems. “It’s a process, a biological breakdown using microbial entities, or as we call them, bugs.”
These bugs naturally occur in sludge, but in order to thrive and consume your waste, underwater pumps, like those made by Aqua-Aerobic, constantly stir up the water. As they feed, the bugs convert your waste into a sludge that settles to the bottom.
Wastewater in Illinois must pass through a secondary process, which repeats and refines the work of the primary pond. In Rockford, as in many municipalities, water coming out of the secondary process is chlorinated for purification, de-chlorinated, and discharged into the Rock River.
But in the western U.S., communities are passing their wastewater through additional filters and a tertiary process that can make the water nearly drinking quality. Many filters made by Aqua-Aerobic Systems aid this process.
Kunz shows off one of the company’s cloth media filters, a wedge of plastic that’s covered in what looks like carpeting. Then she shows another form of filtration: a series of long straws. This membrane is useful for ultrafiltration, typically used in drinking water applications, but it’s also used to treat wastewater.
“They have microscopic holes all the way around the straw,” says Kunz. “The membranes are submerged in the wastewater, where water comes in contact with every straw. The clean, pure water fits through the holes, but fine particles can’t pass through – hence, the filtration process.”
Wimmer expects to see a rising demand for tertiary products, especially as states in the western U.S. struggle with enduring drought.
“That’s driving our filtration business, because we’re one of the main suppliers of tertiary treatment equipment in the country,” he says. “That’s forcing a lot of innovation and opportunity.”
So what happens to that sludge, the waste that’s separated from water in the primary and secondary tanks? In Rockford, it’s piped to several digestion tanks, where it’s further decomposed and strained to about the consistency of mushy Play-Doh. The clumps are stored inside a large outdoor warehouse and eventually given to local farmers to use as fertilizer. The methane that’s produced during decomposition helps to power the treatment center.
Satisfying A Market
Aqua-Aerobic Systems’ work begins long before you flush the toilet. Because of the company’s focus on applied engineering – designing and installing the systems that treat wastewater – its work begins long before your water treatment plant is even built.
“If your city wants to build a wastewater plant, they typically will hire a consulting engineer, and that person works with us to develop a process plan and an equipment plan,” says Wimmer.
“We help them to write specifications that can go out to bid.”
The planning and bidding phase alone can take three to five years, says Wimmer. If Aqua-Aerobic wins the bid, its engineers coordinate with contractors to build and install the components of this new system. This, too, can take several years to complete.
“We’ve been working on a job in Long Island, and we just got the bid this year,” says Wimmer. “We’ve been involved with that job for five years.”
Because it can take so long to satisfy an order, the privately owned company maintains a long-term strategy, rather than focusing on a short-term outlook. Accordingly, the business cycle at Aqua-Aerobic Systems may run three to five years behind more mainstream markets, says Wimmer.
When local fabricators were struggling through the recession, in about 2010, Aqua-Aerobic provided them with steady work. As those manufacturers rebounded, Aqua-Aerobic hit a slow point.
Wimmer places the company’s current revenue between $50 and $100 million per year.
“You have to be able to withstand the peaks and the valleys,” Wimmer says. “What we’ve done lately is develop quite a bit of aftermarket business, where we go and service the products we build. When municipalities were struggling with low tax revenue and housing starts, our aftermarket business was doing well.”
Engineering is by far the most sought-after skill at Aqua-Aerobic Systems, where nearly 30 percent of employees are practicing engineers. The rest of the team supports the engineers through sales, marketing, operations and administration, in addition to customer service and field service. Because of the complex nature of its equipment, Aqua-Aerobic also hires sales reps with degrees or knowledge in engineering.
“We’re looking for degreed engineers in varying capacities, including environmental engineering, civil, mechanical and electrical engineering, and sometimes there’s a need to hire people with wastewater operator certification,” says Kunz. “Our research and development department is important, and also requires advanced scientific degrees.”
About 2,500 engineers are employed throughout the Rockford area, specializing in everything from mechanical and electrical to civil and industrial engineering.
According to federal labor statistics, engineers on average earn nearly $70,000 per year. While a health and safety engineer earns around $76,000 per year, a civil engineer might earn $71,000 per year.
The civil engineers most needed at Aqua-Aerobic Systems are hard to recruit.
“They’re just not around,” says Wimmer. “I have no problem finding electrical engineers. If I wanted a straight mechanical engineer, I can find that here. But we also need process people, who know civil engineering. What we’ve done is hook into some of the universities to bring in their knowledge, and train our own.”
Wimmer sees many advantages to keeping the Aqua-Aerobic Systems headquartered here. For one, our region’s manufacturing prowess provides a reliable supply network. Most of the company’s top suppliers are within 90 miles of Rockford.
“One of the interesting things about Rockford being a manufacturing town is that there’s a lot of high-skilled labor and skilled people here,” says Wimmer. “At one time we were building our own electrical control panels, and then we hooked up with the group that did control work for Ingersoll. This supplier was happy to work with us. We have several instances like this.”
Too, the Midwest offers logistical advantage. “Being in the center of the country, we have access to 80 percent of our customers within a day’s drive,” says Wimmer. “We have so many transportation routes within easy access, traveling north, east, south and west.”
A faithful supporter of its hometown, Aqua-Aerobic regularly contributes to local charitable causes and gives its employees time off to pursue their own service projects. It has a valuable relationship with the Rock River Water Reclamation District and even maintains a working research and technology center within the treatment center. Connected to actual Rockford sewage lines, this Research & Technology Center tests Aqua-Aerobic Systems’ equipment in real-life working conditions and supports continuing research and development.
“One advantage to the Center, from a company standpoint, is that it allows us to bring in customers, so we can show them how the equipment works before they buy it,” says Kunz. “It’s not like we can just send a sample of our product in the mail. Here, they can see firsthand the technologies and the water values that come out of the finished process.”
Expanding the Model
A little education can go a long way, especially given how complex the wastewater treatment process can be. Since the 1980s, Aqua-Aerobic has led technical seminars for engineers and end-use customers that include equipment and product demonstrations, classroom sessions and tours of the facility or the Research and Technology Center.
Most attendees are consulting engineers who help to plan new treatment centers, says Kunz. Many others are government officials who want to better understand their communities’ planned investments, or plant superintendents who want to learn how to apply and operate these technologies.
“Our seminars differentiate us in the marketplace,” says Kunz, who started as a seminar coordinator 25 years ago and still manages the long-running marketing programs. “Others have tried to mimic our programs, but they were unsuccessful. We’re very well-known in our industry for providing top-notch educational programs that provide the clients with continuing education credits.”
Aqua-Aerobic further invested in its seminars in 2006, when it opened a new education center at its headquarters. Now, company engineers and seminar students have access to videoconferencing, patch-ins to customers’ control panels and a host of other teaching tools.
The company’s educational mission also extends to the youngest citizens, who visit for school field trips or tours at the Research and Technology Center.
“For our school-aged visitors, we describe the process at a very elemental level, but they leave knowing what happens to the water every time they take a shower or flush the toilet,” says Kunz. “It doesn’t just go away, so I think it’s important to understand that water must be treated before it’s returned into our rivers, lakes and streams.”
From its home base in Loves Park, Aqua-Aerobic Systems is shaping the future. It’s making inroads to emerging markets in South America and continues its push into Asia. Where industrial development is growing, there’s opportunity.
“Mumbai has 13 million people, but only two main sewage treatment plants,” says Wimmer. “That’s why we’re seeing more work there. China has an infrastructure that’s becoming developed, but it’s still a growing economic power. Global development is very important to our success.”