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Lighting the Way for Next Generation Aircraft
A full-service electronics contract manufacturer is introducing custom LED lighting to small business jets
PWI, Inc. (www.pwi-e.com), formerly Precision Winding, Inc., began its business in 1963 as a manufacturer of coil windings under the leadership of its founder, Miklos (Miki) Lorik. The company designs, engineers, and manufactures various types of electrical windings, "from transformers to inductors to magnetometers, including a full line of specialized tape-wound magnetic cores," according to its website. Electronics contract manufacturing services are a core capability of PWI, which offers a highly skilled engineering staff to aid in product design and development. The company can manufacture sub-assemblies and fully functional and tested products to meet customer needs.
Today, PWI concentrates its efforts in three main areas: custom CCFL and LED lighting systems, coil winding, and contract electronics manufacturing. Located in Wichita, Kansas (nicknamed the "Air Capital of the World"), the company has long been a provider of manufacturing services to the aircraft/aviation industry. Other industries served by PWI include agriculture machinery, automotive test equipment, and custom motorcycles.
Since introducing the use of cold cathode fluorescent lighting (CCFL) for aircraft in 1972, the company has been a major supplier of CCFL aircraft lighting systems. In 2008 and 2009, PWI added an LED Lighting System-including stock and custom LED lighting-to its product line. In the same time period, PWI applied for and was granted a U.S. Patent on Univolt, an extremely energy efficient driver for lighting that runs both AC and DC currents.
Robi Lorik, Miki's son and currently the president of PWI, recently spoke with Design-2-Part Magazine about the company's unique manufacturing specialties.
D2P: Can you tell us about Univolt and what it means for OEM customers, including those in the aviation industry?
Robi Lorik (RL): The Univolt is a lighting solution designed mainly for applications using dual voltages or dual power systems, and also alternative types of sources with a backup battery or a backup generator. So it can operate off of both AC and DC power sources, and a wide range of voltage inputs. The unit regulates itself so that regardless of fluctuations of the input voltage, the light output will remain constant. For example, if it was an unregulated wind generator, as long as the voltage was between 8 and 180 volts, the light output would be the same.
We think that the Univolt is pretty revolutionary in the lighting field, which is why we patented it. It's because of the way it interpolates its input power. Once it interpolates what's coming in, then it will automatically convert it to a continuous, constant output use to drive lights. Before the Univolt, there wasn't anything quite as automatic as this. Before Univolt, it required switching between circuits or different power sources. A lot of aircraft and RVs operate on dual voltages, on 120 volts, 400 Hz. AC, and 20 volts DC. This device will operate on both of those seamlessly without reconfiguring the unit.
This is good for the aviation industry because you can operate on dual or multiple voltage sources, and different models of aircraft will have different power sources. Usually, the lighter aircraft don't have their own power generators, so they operate off of the 28 volt DC bus line of the aircraft. So our customers only have to stock one lighting solution that will work on both aircraft.
D2P: Can you talk about the company's development of cold cathode fluorescent lighting systems for aircraft?
RL: Cold cathode fluorescent lighting is different from the standard fluorescent lighting tubes that you see in offices. The cold cathode system is a much more robust system; it lends itself to high vibration environments. It doesn't use a filament to excite the gases; it uses a cone electrode. So, it's very strong, durable, and has an extremely long life. It's good for aviation uses because it handles vibration so well. A filament in a camping lantern, or an incandescent bulb, becomes very fragile over time. With a cold cathode bulb, it has a very large electrode that does the exciting; therefore, it has a much longer life span.
We've taken a technology that is similar to a neon sign, which is a fluorescent light that is custom-made and custom-shaped. We've created an inverter to convert 28 volt DC to a high-voltage AC signal to run the cold cathode fluorescents. And we have the capabilities to custom-bend the lights to whatever shape they need to be, to configure a galley, headliners, emergency lighting, or floorboard lighting. All of our cold cathode lighting, which is directed toward the aviation industry, is indirect accent lighting. This lighting product that we pioneered is primarily an aviation product, which operates off a 28 volt DC input.
D2P: PWI's business has further evolved from fluorescent lighting to custom LED lighting. What's driving this evolution?
RL: Our primary customers for lighting sources are the general aviation industry, meaning small business jets. Most of our lighting is custom work, based on a particular type of aircraft. It's been driven by the new LED technology, since they are lighter and operate at much lower, safer voltages. And LEDs also emit less RF noise, which is not compatible with aircraft. So, we've made the transition from fluorescence to LED lighting solutions, but we can do both. There's nothing that comes any closer than fluorescents to matching the color temperatures of daylight light. LEDs are getting better with color, but they're still not there yet.
D2P: Can you talk about your capabilities in coil winding, including the primary markets for these services?
RL: On the electronics side, we will make custom parts for many different markets, including motorcycles and agriculture, and we're getting FDA certification so we can start manufacturing medical devices. We have the manufacturing expertise and the capabilities, so we thought it was a natural transition to start the medical device work. Maybe 50% of our work is customized, contract manufacturing. Even our stock parts are made for specialized applications; they're not ordinary, off-the-shelf parts.
When it comes to coil winding, we can make just about anything. When we started doing coil windings, we found out very quickly that we couldn't be competitive with offshore, standard catalogue types of components. So we specialize in several areas, including very fine wire-up to 8 gauge-in small to medium runs, anywhere from 10 to 10,000 components per year. We've wound coils down using 56-gauge wire. We also handle a fair amount of prototype and development work. There are still certain applications where wound magnetics haven't been replaced with solid state electronics, so we key in on these applications.
A lot of engineers will try to design with standard, catalog parts that they can get offshore, but there are certain high-tech devices that are getting designed and manufactured that have custom configurations, which is where we come in. To name a few, we've worked on devices in oil exploration, aviation, and test equipment for the military.
We're also very interested in getting involved in alternative energy and green technology. We're trying to match our Univolt product into the green tech areas. Some green home building situations, both on- and off-grid, could operate with our Univolt system. With a seamless installation, they wouldn't have to switch power converters for their lighting system.
We'd also like to get involved in handling the electronics systems for wind technology. Another unique product we build are tape-wound bobbin cores. The cores are not a new technology, but it's very unique technology, since they're used in devices like magnetometers, an electrical device that senses magnetic fields. Devices like GPSs and aircraft autopilots all have a magnetometer inside them.
D2P: Can you tell us more about your electronics manufacturing and engineering services?
RL: We do have electronics engineers on staff, since electronic components are our core capability. We will usually partner with other manufacturers to get the enclosures or housings completed. We handle the electronics assembly work, and inserting the electronics into an enclosure or housing. We like to work on whatever level a customer is interested in. A lot of people just come in with an idea and want somebody to develop and design it, and then take it to the level of manufacturing. We can do that, or we can take someone's design and help them make it more manufacturing friendly. Or, we can just manufacture an existing design.
D2P: How has PWI's expertise in aviation electronics allowed you to provide services to other industries, such as agribusiness? Do you perform the electronics manufacturing in Wichita?
RL: A lot of our customers are in the Midwest region, especially our core customers in aircraft and aerospace, and also our agricultural machinery customers. The nickname for Wichita is the "Air Capital of the World." Cessna, Bombardier, Hawker-Beech, Boeing, and Spirit are all right here in Wichita. A lot of people don't know it, but the lion's share of aviation work comes out of Wichita.
All of our manufacturing is done in our plant in Wichita. We have several different departments in our plant. The departments are coil winding, lighting systems, and two that handle contract manufacturing. We don't manufacture printed circuit boards; we just populate them with components. We have a semi-automated pick and place machine, and one department does nothing but assemble printed circuit boards. The other department does the final assembly, and installs the finished boards in housings and enclosures. Therefore, we can either make a complete finished product - from initial design to final assembly - or, for some customers, we just populate the boards, test them, and then they do the final assembly work.
We have a network of sheet metal, casting, and injection molding suppliers that we work with that build the enclosures for us. We sub out most of our finishing processes, such as painting, plating, and anodizing.
D2P: Can you describe a couple of applications for the products that you build completely?
RL: We've built a controller for motorcycles from start to finish, where they had an idea to eliminate an old-style relay. The concept came to us from a custom motorcycle manufacturer. We made all the new electronics for them in solid-state, and we inserted a microprocessor to handle some of the functions, like timing. We designed and developed the relay, wrote the software for them, and then manufactured it.
We've also worked with a manufacturer of aftermarket farm implements. One of our specialties is designing and manufacturing digital controllers. The farm implement company had a concept that they patented for a control device that monitors the level of the ground as the tractor is pulling a seed planter. So we partnered with them to take that concept and put it into a design that could be installed on the seed planter. It's designed to track the ground level so that as they are disking the soil in front of the planter, it will keep the disk and planter at a constant level as the terrain changes. It was their idea and patent, but they had never manufactured the device. So we worked with them on the design and engineering to control the hydraulic cylinders with correct timing and the level of the planter and disk. We're also working with the same control technology for hay balers that make the large, round bales.
D2P: What makes your company cost effective and competitive compared to other contract manufacturers?
RL: We've tried to stay up with new technology and be efficient with our manufacturing processes, with our equipment, and with training our personnel. It's also our general business philosophy: We're a small family business, so our pricing structure is very competitive compared to some of the larger contract manufacturers. We've targeted particular niches that are within our core capability, which helps us to be competitive. Our niche is very customized and specialized, and the fact that we are able to handle a complete product from start to finish gives us a competitive edge.
D2P: What are your company's most significant strengths?
RL: Our prices, our quality, and our customer service are our biggest strengths. We're very much a company that values building strong relationships with our customers, so we can provide them with the best service possible. When you have those types of relationships, you understand your customer's needs, whether it's price, quality, or delivery. And because we maintain most of our customers within a geographic area close by, it helps us to maintain strong relationships, especially face-to-face relationships.
D2P: Can you give us an example of how PWI was able to solve a manufacturing challenge?
RL: When we developed the cold cathode lighting system, we were outsourcing all of the lights because we didn't have the technology that we needed to build them ourselves. We found that there was some variation in the lighting, so we tried to work with our suppliers to build the lights more consistently, and also to get tighter tolerances so the lights fit better into fixtures, housings, and woodwork in the aircraft. We finally decided that it was time to learn to make the lights ourselves. So we developed our own department to manufacture the lights. This way, we had control of quality, repeatability, and delivery.
So we put a tremendous amount of effort into R & D to understand cold cathode technology, to perfect it, so we could provide the best lighting solution that was available in the market. We also developed our lights to work with our electronics, and added a lot of features that we weren't able to offer when we were outsourcing the lights.
We've provided many innovations like this. For example, the agricultural equipment industry was one of the industries in the mid-1980s that was lacking in electronic technology. They were using a lot of mechanical relays, which have a very short life span in that environment. We had a customer that wanted us to make a board with a bunch of relays to operate some agricultural equipment. We worked with them and showed them that solid state was a better option, and to use a microprocessor to send out signals to different devices, like hydraulic cylinders, pumps, motors, or whatever was needed. We also felt that we could help them solve their field reliability issues with our new solid state relays.
Most of the agricultural equipment operates at 12 volts, so switching high current on some of these motors and actuators would burn out the relays very quickly. Our new solid state relays lasted longer under the switching stresses, so they helped the agricultural machinery companies come up with more reliable machinery. The agricultural machinery companies also saved tens of thousands of dollars the first year after they started using our relays, which was a big cost savings.
D2P: How does being a one-stop-shop that builds complete products allow your company to compete efficiently in the global economy?
RL: We're trying to be competitive in the global marketplace, but it's very difficult. One thing that has helped us is that we're willing to do the small to medium runs and prototypes. We have specialized niches, which helps us to be competitive. But we're not competitive in the higher-volume high tech or commodity parts, which is what is being done overseas. Our willingness to do the smaller runs is what makes us attractive to a lot of OEMs.
In the past, there was a lot of loyalty. If you made the prototypes, you would get the production work. Now we work with our customers, and we ask them what their long term goals are, and how can we help them meet them. If their long term goal is a commodity product, we can still help them with their short-run, pilot runs. All of the added costs of doing business overseas-such as the language barriers, high shipping costs, and identity theft-play into our favor.
David Gaines contributed reporting for this article.
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