Estimated reading time 14 minutes, 41 seconds.
Photos by Heath Moffatt
Anodyne Electronics Manufacturing (AEM) of Kelowna, British Columbia, is quietly achieving tremendous feats. Since 2009, it has grown into a leading global provider and tier one supplier of mission-critical communications systems, audio accessories, and illumination panels. Its offerings include internal and external loudspeaker systems, next-generation master caution warning panels, specialty audio products, avionics consoles, illuminated panels and keyboards, and design and build services.
AEM equipment is popular in a variety of special role aircraft around the world, including airborne law enforcement, aerial firefighting, search-and-rescue, and surveillance aircraft. Current operators of its equipment include the Texas Department of Public Safety, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Tokyo Metro Police, and Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
Many of AEM’s products are the direct result of discussions with customers about their mission needs. As a result, business has grown, to the extent that AEM recently outgrew its original building.
Earlier this year, the company moved into a brand new customized facility that will allow it to efficiently meet today’s demands and tomorrow’s potential. The 32,000-square-foot building houses brand new state-of-the-art equipment, full in-house testing equipment, and complete manufacturing processes, in addition to research and development activities to meet growing demand. It also allowed AEM to make a few additions to its equipment, including a brand-new Muratec metal punch, additional standard light patterning stations for illuminated panel manufacturing, paint booths, and an Alodine line.
From humble beginnings
AEM was founded 13 years ago to fill a critical aerospace need created when Northern Airborne Technology’s (NAT) Kelowna facility closed that year. When NAT chose to leave Kelowna, several of its highly rated and reliable avionics and electronics products were to no longer be produced, despite considerable customer need. A group of dedicated employees formed AEM and signed licensing agreements to continue producing these critical electrical components at the original NAT location.
The transition to the new employee-owned vertically integrated company was seamless, with many of the same employees clocking out on Friday and returning on Monday as AEM employees. This transition ensured the institutional knowledge and skills of a highly experienced team continued to contribute to reliable quality products while supporting the company’s goal to develop the solutions of the future. Since then, it has exponentially expanded its own AEM-developed avionics product offerings and capabilities well beyond those initial licensed products.
“We saw a huge global market for special mission communications equipment that was under served,” said Brian Wall, CEO at AEM. “We wanted our company to be different, purely people focused. We chose to engage with customers around the world to find out what their needs were specifically and how they could best be met. We focused on how to meet those needs with a large research and development team, taking customer ideas and napkin concepts and turning them into quality, reliable, real solutions. It has allowed our company to grow in capabilities and accomplishments not common for a company this size.”
Leading by design
It was through this customer-focused approach that AEM’s tagline “leading by design” was born. The phrase is far more than a marketing term for the people of the company; it is a philosophy. The company focuses on ensuring products and internal processes are designed in a way that perform and provide the highest quality customer experience, explained Tony Weller, director of sales and marketing at AEM.
“That focus on people is at the core of what we do here at AEM,” said Wall. “It is all about our people and what we do for our customers. We have done a really good job of that, creating a reputation within a relatively small company of 112 employees that has led to us becoming a tier one supplier to all the major helicopter airframe manufacturers and other [manufacturers of products] that are either type certified or STC’d on those airframes. We are also supporting operators directly. That is not a common thing for a company of our size, either.”
AEM’s customer focus on solutions goes beyond its own product development. The company’s comprehensive manufacturing services for customers specialize in tackling the challenges of lower volume, high-mix product configurations. It is not uncommon for customers to come to AEM with a specific challenge for their operation and AEM’s engineers to design a solution that exceed expectations.
Recently, AEM responded to a request for proposals from Embraer for a specialty solution for the C-390 Millennium’s warning bell system. The RFP’s scope of work described what Embraer thought needed to be done, but AEM saw a better way to achieve the solution, Weller said.
“We had a discovery meeting with Embraer as we typically do during these processes, and we told them we think the way they designed it could be done differently in a manner which will reduce costs and risks to the program,” Weller shared. “We were able to combine their ideas into a more consolidated solution. We did all the design and testing work here in our facility. They then tested it in their aircraft. We delivered on time and on budget and actually improved on what they thought they needed to begin with.”
AEM tackled a similar issue with a Leonardo customer. The unnamed government customer ordered a fleet of aircraft that required specific mission radios and control heads that recently became obsolete. Leonardo needed a new solution to integrate into the new aircraft. AEM developed a new mission radio system in a virtually unheard-of 18 months to help Leonardo meet its delivery deadline. The solution was so successful, Weller said, that Leonardo is working with AEM to bring a derivative of the solution to market to modernize new aircraft and the existing fleet.
In the long run, the work on this project will develop into a solution for hundreds of aircraft around the world, Weller added. AEM hopes to make a public announcement of the product in the near future.
AEM recognizes specialty communication equipment is highly critical to aircraft operations and must meet stringent standards. The company’s reputation of continually meeting those standards with exceedingly reliable solutions drives more business and growth.
“Our reputation for quality and skill has led to more business, allowing us to continue to research and develop new product offerings,” Weller explained. “Where we’ve already worked with a manufacturer or government on a successful solution, they will come to us with other challenges they think we can help them solve, because they know we’ll do it well and at a fair price. Often that leads to opportunities to develop solutions that will be applicable across multiple airframes.”
Last fall, AEM built on that growth by acquiring Eagle Audio Systems, a division of Eagle Copters Ltd. of Calgary, Alberta. The acquisition included all of Eagle’s popular audio line, including the P139-HD Digital Audio System, the P122 and P132 avionics consoles (which are a direct replacement for the Airbus AS350), and other audio accessories.
Eagle had previously acquired the system from Geneva Aviation in 2013, which had developed its revolutionary Generation II Digital Audio System that supports up to 18 headsets, 30 transceivers, and 48 control panels. While these products were under the Eagle brand, AEM was a reliable supplier of high-quality components for them, making the acquisition a seamless move both for AEM and customers.
Meeting future needs
In 2014, AEM partnered with Structural Monitoring Systems (SMS) to support development, production, and certification of SMS’s structural health monitoring technology. In late 2017, SMS purchased AEM, making it a wholly owned subsidiary of SMS Canada Corp. The move was a positive one for AEM, providing it with the support and backing to continue to pursue aggressive growth, such as acquiring Eagle Audio Systems, and expanded research and development.
AEM’s growth did encounter one small challenge of its own, however — space. The company’s facility could no longer accommodate its research, development, and manufacturing demands, prompting the development of a new facility.
“The new building is laid out with efficiencies in mind with a flow from start to finish, allowing us to build products much smoother than ever before,” Wall said. “It lessens the footprint of people having to travel in the facility. It aligns processes, automation, and employee comfort. We’ve already seen an improvement through these efficiencies. Our surface mount line is an example of this. It uses all new state-of-the-art Yamaha technology that sees our PCBs transfer from various stations — the solder paste to placement, secondary placement, then on through the flow through oven.
“All of this is lessening the manual handling of these products,” he continued. “These automation advancements provide increased accuracy, safety, speed, and precision. As a result, our throughput has increased significantly where we can employ a greater number of people, accommodate more volume, and add shifts if needed. Our potential to grow the business is 10 times more than we had at the old facility. Our three-year business plan is based on significant real growth. This facility allows us to take that on.”
The new facility also brings far more of the company’s testing in-house. The new environmental test lab allows the company to perform temperature, temperature variation, vibration, altitude, humidity, RF emission and susceptibility, electrostatic shock, and power supply tests that include power spikes to ensure continued operation of the product. It also provides AEM greater in-house DO-214A and DO-160G testing capabilities.
The human aspect
To AEM, it was important to create a company with a culture that ensures not only the quality of its products but that the quality would continue throughout current and new products. As a result, its customer service philosophy extends throughout the entire life of the product. AEM has seen products that were purchased 25 years ago come back to the factory for simple cosmetic touch-ups because the unit still worked perfectly, and the customer wanted it to stay in service.
To deliver this level of support, AEM invests in a culture that values its employees. While the company has not been immune to global supply chain and overall human resource challenges recently, it has weathered the storm well compared to other local and aerospace companies. AEM enjoys a 2.6 percent voluntary turnover, well below the 10 to 15 percent in the local Kelowna community. Leaders attribute this to the focus they put on communicating, listening, and supporting their employees. The benefit package exceeds all others in the region, offering profit sharing, more paid days off than is typical, flexible work hours, enhanced medical benefits, and training and development for each employee along his or her chosen career path.
“When we talk about communication, we take it to heart,” Wall said. “Each and every one of us in leadership talk to every one of our employees every day. I walk through the facility talking to everyone two to three times a day. We share our company plans and our workforce is excited about where we are going. It’s a team effort. We believe investing in our employees, which includes ensuring they’re heard and valued, is vital in maintaining a people-focused company. When you care for your employees, they care about the quality of their work and their customers. That builds the company’s quality, reliability, and customer support reputation.”