Aircraft can fly for decades if they're properly maintained and upgraded to meet industry standards and regulations.
But owners of small and mid-sized jets have limited options to upgrade their avionics, since makers of such aircraft offer few cockpit upgrades for older planes.
That's where Tucson-based Universal Avionics Systems Corp. flies onto the radar.
The 32-year-old company has carved a valuable niche supplying state-of-the-art avionics, such as navigation systems and data recorders, for aircraft ranging from small business jets to regional airliners.
And with a string of successful new product launches in recent years and new products on the way, the company plans to grow in the Old Pueblo.
Today, Universal's cockpit equipment flies aboard about 10,000 aircraft worldwide, mainly on smaller jets but ranging from King Air turboprops, to older Boeing 747s, to Sikorsky helicopters.
"It's probably easier to say what we're not on," said Paul DeHerrera, Universal's chief operating operator and top local executive.
One big reason for the company's reach, DeHerrera says, is that owners of smaller jets have few other options.
"Aircraft, unlike cars, they use them for years and years, but the avionics become outdated," DeHerrera said. "Those customers are in a conundrum because they need a way to upgrade their avionics."
He cited planes like the Dassault Falcon 900, which first took to the air in the mid-1980s. The company recently retrofitted a Falcon 900B, a model dating from the early 1990s, with a complete avionics suite.
"It's a great niche market for us, because there's not a lot of people doing it," he said, noting that most original equipment avionics makers provide upgrade support only for a few years.
"They don't necessarily worry too much about the aircraft after its five years old or 10 years old."
Black Boxes, panel displays
Plane owners turn to Universal for the latest technology in aircraft navigation and safety, and they haven't been disappointed.
Universal offers a wide range of avionics, including flight-management systems - essentially computers that automate navigation - which comprise about half of the company's sales.
Other products include flight voice and data recorders (often called black boxes), flat-panel displays, datalink communications systems, terrain awareness and warning systems (TAWS), and a "synthetic vision" system, which gives pilots a three-dimensional view of surrounding terrain from front and trailing side views. About the only things the company doesn't supply are autopilots and radars.
In 2007, the company offered one of the first federally certified flight-management systems to work with the GPS-based Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS), a system of satellites and ground stations that provide GPS signal correction for precise landing approaches.
The Federal Aviation Administration has been transitioning away from a system of ground-based beacons, known as VOR, in favor of GPS-enabled WAAS.
Flight-management systems are Universal's biggest seller, and sales of the WAAS-enabled systems helped Universal through the recession and slow recovery, DeHerrera said.
"That's actually carried us quite well through these tough times," he said, noting that the company made it through the last three years without major cutbacks or layoffs.
More recently, the company has rolled out new flat-panels certified for helicopter use, flight recorders that use solid-state capacitors instead of batteries for power backup and a short-message datalink designed to comply with emerging requirements for trans-Atlantic flights.
Gary Harpster, senior avionics modifications sales representative for Lincoln, Neb.-based Duncan Aviation, said Universal is the only company to offer retrofits of the datalink product for small- to midsized jets.
Such datalink systems allow pilots flying to and from Europe to send short text messages to relay their locations and intentions to trans-Atlantic air traffic controllers. They are favored by air-traffic authorities for the busy - and largely radarless - trans-Atlantic route to avoid problems created by spotty voice communications or language barriers.
"They're the only company that offers a solution for the people who fly back and forth from Europe," Harpster said, noting that only planes equipped with the datalink technology are allowed on the two most direct trans-Atlantic flight paths.
It's also a good example of what Universal brings to the table, he said.
"They've got a very good perspective of the world we operate in, and they have good, timely solutions," he said, adding that the company is expert at integrating often disparate avionics systems.
All of Universal's products are made in Tucson at the company's south-side plant, which employs 271 full-time workers including assembly workers, FAA-certified repair technicians, engineers and sales and administrative staff.
Clean and quiet
Universal's 60,000-square-foot factory floor is perhaps the quietest and cleanest you're likely to find.
Special anti-static carpet dampens the sound, and workers wear wires to discharge excess static.
The company makes its products from the circuit boards up. At one end of the assembly line, a robotic machine places various processors and chips on preprinted circuit boards.
From there, the assemblies move on to workers who painstakingly assemble boards and switches into finished products. A monorail system sends products in process from one workstation to the next.
"We actually assemble the units on those self-propelled shuttles and send them for assembly and testing - very unique," said Steve Pagnucco, general manager of manufacturing at Universal.
Pagnucco said the company has bucked the trend of outsourcing assembly operations offshore. The company has no trouble finding qualified workers, and many have been with the company for years.
"The circuit board line, that's becoming very rare for companies to do themselves anymore," Pagnucco said. "We've held onto it, it helps us with time to market, it helps us control quality and delivery. We're very proud to do all of our manufacturing locally, and it pays off for us."
The privately held company doesn't divulge annual revenues, but various industry sources peg Universal's sales in the tens of millions of dollars.
Looking ahead, DeHerrera said the company pans to announce a new, integrated "flight deck," or avionics package, this fall.
And though the company hasn't done much military work, it has added products aimed at "non-tactical" operations, such as a new air-drop instrument that allows crews to accurately drop cargo, DeHerrera said.
The company has plenty of room for expansion, but the economy and aircraft market will dictate the pace, he said. The company recently opened a sales and service office in Singapore, its first in Asia.
The company employs about 185 people elsewhere, including engineering centers in Redmond, Wash., and Duluth, Ga., and sales and service locations in Wichita, Kan.
The company also has a European office in Switzerland, where Universal President and CEO Joachim L. "Ted" Naimer, son of the company's founder, lives and operates a major supplier of high-capacity switching equipment.
"We like Tucson and we want to grow here," DeHerrerra said.
ABOUT THE SERIES
Made in Tucson is an occasional series about local companies that make things, how they're made, and the people who make them.
If you'd like to have your company highlighted, or want to suggest a local manufacturer to be featured, drop us a note at email@example.com and use "Made in Tucson" in the subject line. Or call us at 573-4181.
At a glance
Universal Avionics Systems Corp.
• Founded: 1981 (moved to Tucson in 1988).
• Address: 3260 E. Universal Way.
• Business: Developer and manufacturer of aircraft avionics systems.
• Local employees: 271.
• Top local executive: Paul DeHerrera, chief operating officer.
Contact Assistant Business Editor David Wichner at dwichner@azstarnetcom or 573-4181.