Few aerospace companies of any size systematically gauge whether their rate of innovation is sufficient to ensure long-term profitable growth, much less stay ahead of global competition; isolated metrics familiar to all managers are more de rigueur. At Liquid Measurement Systems Inc. (LMS), President George Lamphere happens to believe new contract awards are a pretty good test.
LMS specializes in the design and production of proprietary sensors and electronics that allow fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft to accurately measure the temperature, density and quantity of fuel for airborne and ground vehicles. The company also engineers carbon-composite fuel probes, an alternative to their aluminum counterparts widely used in commercial and military aircraft.
“The fact that we were selected as vendor on two future helicopter programs [the AVX joint multirole aircraft and theS-97 Raider] tells me that our present productivity level on innovation is sufficient,” says Lamphere. “But as Andy Grove, Intel's former CEO, says: 'Only the paranoid survive.'”
Lamphere has good reason to stay laser-focused, if not paranoid, on the task at hand. Success can be elusive, depending on the business climate and a company's financial resources. That LMS, a family-owned operation headquartered in Georgia, Vt., was selected to supply flight-critical components on two future programs is no small achievement; getting a major systems integrator to recognize a small supplier's technology, regardless of how innovative, is one of the biggest challenges such enterprises face daily.
But that does not seem to have been a problem for LMS. The company has been, or currently is, on design teams involved with the interface electronics on the, and provided engineering expertise to many of the major platform builders on the design, manufacture and testing of fuel-quantity indicating systems. That includes upgrades to the fuel-management system for the UH-1, , AH-1 and helicopters.
Lamphere's father, David, who worked on the fuel-management systems for Apollo and other early space programs, started the company 21 years ago. He pioneered the use of carbon-composite fuel probes as an alternate to ones made of aluminum and stainless steel to detect fuel in ground water. Unlike metal, carbon composite will hold up under the corrosive effects of fuel. Such durability makes the probes ideal for aviation, plus they are much lighter. LMS's devices also are designed to collapse and not puncture the fuel bladder in a crash or hard landing.
LMS engineers are especially proud of the probes' reliability. Thousands of the parts have been delivered for use in both commercial and military aircraft, with no reported failures. The idea is to produce not just proprietary precision instruments but components that will outlast the airframe to which they are mounted, thus reducing life-cycle costs.
Lamphere is sensitive about inadvertently revealing too much about the “secret sauce” behind the company's proprietary technology, so he will not say what percentage of LMS's $6-7 million in revenue goes into R&D. But on a relative basis, it would seem to be substantial.
Eight years ago, the company set up an offsite “Skunk Works” where its engineering team is tasked with developing new ideas into new products. Run by the elder Lamphere, the facility includes a laboratory separate from the one that supports manufacturing and production. There a technical team experiments with new concepts and conducts trials in coordination with the engineering department.
LMS also uses tiger teams that work across all departments to address what the company believes are its most promising new product opportunities, and it is channeling its investment money accordingly. These include technologies that measure fuel levels without penetrating the fuel tank, more energy-efficient systems, and wireless and fiber-optic systems that use light to take precise measurements.
On a scale of 1 to 10, the technology to measure fuel outside of a cell is at a readiness level of about 5. It is an initiative in which LMS is trying to create a market, versus waiting for a customer specifically to request it. The concept could be a game-changer, but it has to be cost-effective, notes Lamphere. “Improved safety would be the most compelling reason to adopt the capability. The trick is to introduce innovative technology while holding the line on cost to the customer. “Ultimately, it will be the customer who will consider the tradeoff.” Another safety-related initiative underway is technology to detect oxygen levels in fuel tanks for real-time smart-tank inerting.
Engineers make up a third of the staff, but all employees are part of the innovation process. “Like a family, we continuously share with our team the challenges and opportunities available to our company in the marketplace,” says Lamphere. “If we innovate and create new solutions for our customers, we build a culture that embraces success and failure, and we learn from both.”
To help sustain such a culture, LMS seeks out partnerships with other businesses that share the company's cultural bent for innovation. There are fewer than 30 employees, and management actively encourages everyone in the organization, from engineering and manufacturing to sales and accounting, to submit new ideas. Rewards are handed out for the most compelling suggestions.
Any ideas on how to reduce life-cycle costs or improve durability are especially valued. Still, every suggestion that bubbles up is taken seriously, because one idea always leads to another, says Lamphere. “At LMS, innovation is a team sport.”