Estimated reading time 14 minutes, 56 seconds.
Relying on a combination of skilled engineering, cutting-edge materials and an old-fashioned work ethic, a small company on the plains of North Dakota has become a force to be reckoned with in the world of medical aircraft interiors.
Spectrum Aeromed, a family owned company of 25 employees, has been building medical interiors for fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft for the past 21 years: beginning in Fargo, N.D., then moving to the small town of Wheaton, Minn., and then back to Fargo in 2008. The company designs and manufactures both permanently installed interiors for single-mission aircraft and more-flexible modular systems that can be quickly and easily installed and removed from multi-mission aircraft.
For much of the companys history, the bulk of its business came from fixed-wing operators, but in recent years Spectrum has seen a marked increase in the number of interiors it has provided to the helicopter industry: at present, Spectrums order books are fairly evenly split between fixed- and rotary-wing projects. That uptick is primarily owing to the growing trend of operators looking to get the most out of their helicopter investment by ensuring multi-mission capabilities. Spectrums success in the helicopter industry has also had much to do with its commitment to meeting customer requirements, its follow-up support and its dedication to excellence qualities that are being appreciated by a growing number of helicopter operators not only in the United States, but also around the world.
As Spectrum moves forward, the company sees its expertise in modular interior systems as a key advantage. Using offshore transport as an example, Spectrums president and chief executive officer, Dean Atchison, made a strong case for the modular equipment that the company produces: The oil rig operators, theyre saying You know, we take people out to the rigs all the time, but sometimes weve got to take somebody whos gotten sick or injured out of there, and we should be able to use the same aircraft. And if you spent $15 million on your helicopter, you kind of hope to be able to do so not to have to buy another $15 million helicopter to do that piece of it.
Spectrums modular systems are built to mount directly to existing hard-points in the cabin, often using a seat rail adapter that locks into place with only two or three pins and allows for a solid, rapid connection between the airframe and the module the operator has chosen. The installation itself is surprisingly quick usually about 15 to 20 minutes and often requires no tools. Both speed and ease of installation are of course critically important in medical situations, where mere moments can mean the difference between life and death.
Historically, modular systems were not seen as being as capable or full-featured as their permanently installed counterparts. With todays design and material advances, however, thats no longer the case.
You had the differentiation in the past of being a modular or a dedicated system, and dedicated meant ICU [intensive care unit] and modular meant not ICU, but those times are gone completely, said Horst Heinicke, Spectrums vice-president of international sales. Today, he said, sophisticated carbon-fiber modular units can serve the same ICU role as permanent installations: The only difference then is that you still have the quick-change capability.
Its clear that Spectrum understands the needs of its customers, not only from its years of experience, but also because its staff has a remarkable amount of operational experience in the aviation industry. On its management team alone, Spectrum has four pilots and three airframe-and-powerplant mechanics, so its safe to say that the company has considerable insight into the unique requirements of aircraft equipment. That insight coupled with a young and energetic team of talented engineers and efficient production staff has resulted in a line of quality products that are in service around the globe, some still doing daily duty after more than 20 years in the field.
Especially key to Spectrums success has been its flexibility and open-mindedness during the design process. Unlike some aircraft interior companies that offer a largely pre-defined package interior with relatively few options for customization, Spectrum has taken a different approach one that sometimes catches its potential customers a little off guard.
Said Heinicke, The first surprise they experience is that they typically come to us and [ask], What is your solution for that particular aircraft? And we say, Tell us what you want.
That, remarked Heinicke, is when the ah-ha moment strikes and the clients realize the process is about them, not about Spectrum. Once they understand that, Spectrums staff begins to capture the customers needs.
I like to go in and start with a white sheet of paper, said Heinicke. Thats what I tell them this is what I have [a blank sheet], so lets start. It starts slowly, but after a while you realize youre two or three hours into this open discussion already and youre filling this white paper with the requirements.
Once the customers requirements have been captured and finalized, Spectrums engineering team begins work on designing a complete solution, often utilizing a combination of the companys existing products and brand-new, custom-designed components to suit the particular application and environment of the customer. Even if the interior is going into an airframe that Spectrum has worked with in the past, its teams will often still perform fairly extensive customization work to suit the customer.
That customer is going to have what they want for their specs, because thats going to be specific to their region, said Spectrum VP and account executive Matt Christenson. Now the next customer, who has the same [Eurocopter] EC145 and is still saving lives, but theyre based on a coast or theyre based over in Europe their specifications are going to be different.
In addition to advising the customer on the actual interior components, such as the articulating stretchers, Med Walls and storage solutions that Spectrum manufactures, the company also provides in-depth assistance on selecting the medical equipment that will be used in the aircraft and facilitates the training necessary to use that equipment properly.
During the design and manufacturing process, Spectrum makes sure its customers are always fully up-to-date on the status of their project. In fact, the company has recently instituted a program designed by Christenson where all of its customers receive a detailed weekly report from the production manager detailing the status of their project. This lends an additional level of transparency to the process.
From a customers standpoint, its well-received, because it gives them insight on whats going on, said Christenson. They have a real-time opportunity to see the progress of what were making and how their equipment is coming [along], and they can base that against their scheduling, and forecast ahead.
That information is especially important to customers that are dealing with a larger undertaking within their operation, where the interior of the aircraft is only one of many factors that must align in order to transition that new ship into revenue-generating service.
Spectrum places a premium on turning around projects quickly, while maintaining its high-quality standards. For projects requiring mostly existing components, the company usually advises its customers that the process will take between 45 and 60 days, including everything from the requirements-capture and production time, to the final installation. For more heavily customized jobs, however, the process will understandably take longer. Heinicke estimated that from the time of his white sheet discussion with the customer, to the installation of the finished, certified product, the process averages something closer to nine months.
Interestingly, the companys commitment to the customer doesnt wane when the project is finished and the aircraft is delivered. Beyond standard product support, Spectrum also provides specialized training for the flight crews that will be using the new interiors and all the associated medical devices and equipment. Thats especially important for customers in developing nations, where the concept of an air ambulance is often still relatively novel. Spectrum works closely with these brand new operators to make sure all their needs are met and that the newly minted crews are fully prepared for their lifesaving missions.
We do have countries where these ambulance services are not built up its the first-ever in-country air ambulance, sometimes, explained Heinicke. So, we provide them the turnkey solution. Once delivered, we dont let them alone, or send them a training video, or have them read through manuals; we send doctors and specialists out and train them on the use of the medical devices. For us, its clear that once they take delivery of our equipment, they have to use it in a professional way and we have to give them every tool to be able to use it and to be operational from day one.
While not all of Spectrums customers are in developing nations, fully 80 percent are based outside the U.S. which is something that might seem a bit unusual for a small company located about as far away from a coastline or a major city as it is physically possible to be. But, as Christenson explained, while Fargo may not seem like the ideal location to base an international business, the company has found the opposite to be true. In fact, starting with their location at an international airport Spectrums offices are housed in the renovated former terminal building at Fargos Hector International Airport continuing with exceptional access to the great engineering talent being produced by several area universities, and closing with the state of North Dakotas business-friendly policies and programs, Spectrum is surrounded by bountiful resources for growing an international business.
Of course, it certainly doesnt hurt that the regions reputation for hard work is well represented in the companys employees. Theres a strong dedication to getting the product done, and getting it right the first time, said Christenson, who also attributes the fit and finish of the companys products to the Midwestern mores of Spectrums employees. Theres a simplicity that we look at in our engineering style which comes from our background and that style of work ethic.
A Reputation for Excellence
As part of Spectrums ongoing quest for producing the best possible products, the company has undertaken a number of strategic initiatives to help ensure its continued success. Key among those are implementing lean manufacturing policies and undertaking the arduous process of attaining AS9100 certification, the rigorous aviation industry variant of ISO 9001 quality management certification. These endeavors have helped streamline and document Spectrums existing processes and are resulting in stronger communication and more consistently repeatable results for the company, all of which result in a better finished product for the customer. Further, by embracing the tenets of lean manufacturing and providing lean training to nearly its entire staff, Spectrum has shortened its production time for standard products by as much as half.
Spectrum also maintains a U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certificated repair station and employs an FAA-qualified DMIR (designated manufacturing inspection representative) and a qualified DER (designated engineering representative). And, the company has more than 60 supplemental type certificates approved by the FAA and other aviation authorities.
In addition to its headquarters in Fargo, the company also maintains offices in Munich, Germany, and Philadelphia, Pa. These locations provide the company easier access to serve clients in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, as well as the U.S. government and military markets that Spectrum is actively courting.
As Spectrums reputation for providing high-quality interior solutions has spread throughout the industry, the company has found itself in the enviable position of being a go-to supplier for a very profitable, but very niche market. Over the last eight years, it has completed a significant number of projects for Middle Eastern royal families and heads of state. While it was a difficult market to enter, word traveled quickly about Spectrums quality of work and ability to meet its commitments.
When we did the first project, it took me two years to lock it in, and the second project I [secured just] four weeks later, remarked Heinicke, who also said that the royal families stay in close contact and share information readily with each other. They love to spread out the information in a good way, but also in a bad way, so youre in a risky place. You have to commit. You cannot give a promise that you dont keep. And, thats what we have been doing for eight years now.
As Spectrum president and CEO Atchison explained: I think that if we had stubbed our toe on any one of these first half-dozen projects, it would have been poof gone. They would have gone somewhere else; but weve been able to do them and do them well and it now has become, Why would you go anywhere else?
Spectrum has not only gathered accolades for its quality products, it has also been singled out for its quick growth and solid profits. In the past few years, the company has twice been named to Inc. magazines 500/5000 list of the fastest growing privately held companies in the nation. The companys growth rate over the past three years has been 97 percent, with its 2011 revenues tipping the scales at more than $7 million US.
Stating that repeat business and customer referrals are perhaps an even better metric of success than dollars and cents, Spectrums production manager, Bob Daily, is encouraged by what hes seeing. Its very gratifying to see customers coming back, said Daily. We hear that they purchased the system and now theyre going for system number two, number three, number four. Obviously thats a success. And its a record that bodes well for Spectrum Aeromeds prospects as the company continues to help customers around the world expand their capabilities and life-saving services.
John Pedersen is a writer/photographer/videographer based in Fargo, N.D. Whenever hes able to venture away from the Great Plains, he enjoys canoe tripping, ice climbing and eating fine barbecue.