Looking to Make Some Waves
FloDesign’s New CEO Eyes Aggressive Growth PatternsWalter Thresher certainly wasn’t thinking about retiring after a nearly 34-year career at Hamilton Sunstrand, now United Technologies Aerospace Systems, but he was looking to perhaps throttle down a bit, to borrow an industry term, after work on everything from the B2 bomber to the Comanche helicopter to Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner.
“I was looking for a different challenge — something approaching part-time,” he told BusinessWest, adding that he’s found the former, but not exactly the latter, in his new capacity as CEO of Wilbraham-based FloDesign.
This is the company, founded by Western New England University Engineering professor Walter Perez and led by WNEU Engineering graduate and serial entrepreneur Stanley Kowalski, that is most associated with a radical new design for wind turbines. But while that concept was, indeed, designed by FloDesign engineers, Kowalski and Perez now maintain only a minority ownership in the company they spun off to take the concept to the marketplace — FloDesign Wind Turbine — and the company is now headquartered in Waltham.
Meanwhile, another spinoff, FloDesign Sonics, still based in Wilbraham, is engaged in developing technology using sound waves for a variety of uses, including water purification.
The parent corporation, FloDesign, is essentially an aerospace company that has designed, prototyped, and developed products ranging from noise suppressors for jet engines to something called a RAP nozzle, a device that transmits a fluid force, gas, or fine particles over a distance with minimal loses. Thresher takes the helm at an intriguing time for the enterprise, as it looks to create new business opportunities and avenues for growth.
Thresher, who came to the company in February, is considering a number of options for the company, but especially evolution into what he called a ‘skunkworks operation’ for major defense and aerospace companies, like Hamilton Sundstrand.
Skunk Works is the official alias for Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Development Programs operation, formerly known as Lockheed Advanced Development Projects, which was created in the 1940s and developed aircraft ranging from the U-2 to the SR-71 Blackbird to the F-22 Raptor. But over the ensuing decades, the term has been applied (using the lower case) to a group within an organization, or an outside venture, given a high degree of autonomy to conceive and prototype new products and technologies.
“The team we have here has very good capability in design, rapid prototyping, and then getting parts on test fast,” he explained. “And that’s something that larger companies have a hard time doing; they tend to go slow and follow very fixed processes. What I’d like to do is operate as a skunkworks operation for a larger company.”
Thresher brings vast experience in aerospace product development and engineering to his new position at FloDesign.
After starting his career with Pratt and Whitney as a development engineer in turbine cooling and dirt-separator development, the WNEU graduate moved to Hamilton Sundstrand a year later, where he developed high-pressure water separators, air mixers, sub-freezing heat exchangers, and air-bearing turbomachinery. He led the engineering efforts to improve heat-exchanger-manufacturing processes and defined the build process for air-bearing air-cycle machines used in a number of current military fixed-wing applications.
He has also been responsible for systems on the B2 bomber, and was chief project engineer for the Environmental Control System (ECS) for the F/A-18 E/F aircraft. Later, he was the design manager for the thermal-management systems for the Boeing 787 Dreamliner program, and also performed the function of weight manager to control and reduce the weight of the design. As part of that effort, his team received a special challenge award from Boeing for creative use of design tools to achieve weight reduction.
He was previously chief engineer for the Comanche helicopter ECS, and was most recently the chief engineer for the CH53K HLR helicopter secondary power system. During the design phase, he led efforts to reduce system weight, resulting in a simplified system with little functional compromise, and a 10%-under-contract weight system.
Summing up what’s on that extensive résumé, Thresher said his work centered on parts and systems such as water collectors, air mixers, and heat exchangers, devices similar to those with which FloDesign has made its reputation.
What’s more, the company had been working on some specific projects that intrigued him, such as initiatives involving UAVs, or unmanned air vehicles, for both military and civilian use.
Thresher was eventually approached by Kowalski about taking the helm at the aerospace division of the company. “I was thinking that this was a bit more than a part-time job,” he said, “but it was an exciting opportunity to do some of the things that were on my list at Hamilton.”
He told BusinessWest that his primary job description is to determine the next direction for the aerospace unit. One of his immediate goals is to use proprietary mixer/ejector technology that the company has developed to move two products from the drawing board to the market.
One is a noise-suppressing device that has been in development and funded through a grant from the Small Business Innovation Research program, while the other is the RAP nozzle, which Thresher believes has potential for use in a number of markets, from fire suppression to personal protection.
“We’re trying to figure out just where to go with it at this point,” he explained. “But it has a number of potential applications.”
And his long-range goal for FloDesign is to become an independent skunkworks operation that would take advantage of its experience with everything from scale-model testing to work in design of “less-than-lethal” weapons to design and develop products and technologies for what could become a variety of clients.
“We’re able to do things faster and less expensively than larger operations can,” he explained. “That’s a major area of opportunity that I plan to expand.”
Thresher said FloDesign could thrive in such a role because, while there are many smaller shops that specialize in one phase of product development — design, fabrication, or testing, for example — there are few that can, like FloDesign, handle them all.
“We also have the technical capability to think through what the issues are with the first round of what was designed and tested, and even design modifications,” he said. “And that’s what would make us unique compared to other companies.
“Normally, at a test house, you take parts there, you run a test, they give you the data, and you go home,” he went on. “At a design house, you tell them what you want designed, they do the design, and they give it back to you. We can do all those things.”
— George O’Brien