Making New Connections
Consider airline in-flight entertainment. This humble invention, helpful in relieving the tedium of long flights, would not be possible without a hidden and highly sophisticated array of electronics and connectors. Since 1952, Air Electro Inc. has been at the forefront of electronic connector design and manufacturing – both in our world and above it.
In the years following the Korean War, engineer William Strull decided to take advantage of the aviation boom surrounding Los Angeles. The city was already home to such emerging aircraft giants as Lockheed, Hughes, and Rockwell. His new company originally functioned as a parts reseller to the many aircraft companies in the region. As it grew, Air Electro was at the forefront of the Cold War efforts, helping outfit U.S. and NATO aircraft with increasingly sophisticated electronic needs.
“We were dealing with a wide variety of aircraft components, hardware, and some electronics,” recalls Air Electro President Steve Strull. Over time, “we gravitated more toward electronic components.” He took the company reins from his father in 1988.
Then, in the 1960s, following the addition of Strull’s partner Al Singer, the company began to diversify into electronic components and connectors to better satisfy its customers and to enhance the skills of its management and sales personnel. As the years passed, Air Electro developed a well-earned reputation for reliability, professionalism, and industry knowledge. In a sector known for rapid fluctuation, it has remained a steady provider of quality electronic design and manufacturing.
However, with the end of the Cold War in 1989, military budgets were slashed, and the lucrative Defense Department contracts stopped coming. The so-called ‘peace dividend’ had arrived. But where other companies, particularly in the aerospace sector, merged or went out of business, Air Electro chose to evolve. By that point, the company had successfully diversified its market and had anticipated the coming economic changes. Strull says that, ironically, the loss of larger contracts that were necessary for larger competitors to stay afloat meant that Air Electro could concentrate on smaller, more specialized contracts instead, thereby keeping the company moving while others left the industry. Later, during the 2008 recession, the company was again able to scale back overhead and cash demands, leading to a leaner and more competitive company when the market resettled.
Today, this is a certified, valued-added distributor for the largest connector manufacturers in the industry, specializing in military aerospace style products. The connectors are all assembled at the company’s plant just outside of Los Angeles. It also has subcontractors worldwide, and some components may be manufactured in France or Vietnam. The company’s talented sales professionals represent Air Electro to potential clients around the world.
Air Electro works most closely with the Tier 1 subcontractors in the aerospace and defense industry, providing connectors and components for companies like General Electric, United Technologies, Honeywell, Thales and Panasonic. The company’s aircraft components can be seen in Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Lightning II and Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner. It also works with lesser-known subcontractors such as Jabil, Celestica, Plexus, and other global entities.
To Strull, this represents a growing shift in the aerospace industry, with a noticeable increase in subcontracting and a rise in industrial prestige to match. “What has happened over the years is the major top-tier aerospace companies do not really build or assemble things any longer,” he explains. “They farm it all out.” As subcontractors grow and take on more responsibilities, including procurement and engineering, these companies need more advanced components which is good news for Air Electro.
This is a relatively small business with only sixty-five employees on the payroll, and Steve Strull takes pride in its success amidst much larger competitors. “Many of our competitors – that offer some of the same products as Air Electro – are much larger in size,” he says candidly. “That becomes a challenge when you are not necessarily ‘up there’ in terms of your size or your financial resources to go head-to-head with some of these major companies.”
However, he has strong faith in Air Electro’s long industry experience and employees. “We pride ourselves on having many, many years of experience in the connector industry, so long-term employees and specialists that have significant knowledge going back forty-plus years on our products that we sell.”
Air Electro also prides itself on being a hybrid value-added distributor and manufacturer, with both design and production capabilities under one roof. Instead of mass-producing simple components, the company can instead manufacture more specialized, advanced components for a more specialized client. This, Strull believes, has helped the company stay competitive over the years. Additionally, the company has made innovative strides in increasing component efficiency and transmission speed, leading to recent advances in consumer electronics, most visibly in airline entertainment systems. He is justifiably pleased with the company’s continued involvement in the field.
Presently, Air Electro is assisting with a massive overhaul of Boeing’s 777 airliners that will refit the workhorse aircraft into the 777X with a projected delivery date of December 2019. This update includes some of the latest in-flight entertainment technology, to help future travellers enjoy their flights in comfort.
The company is heavily involved with the private spaceflight entity SpaceX, helping design and manufacture custom components for its rockets and satellites. According to Strull, SpaceX is highly selective about its chosen manufacturers, so Air Electro being selected for its role was a unique honor, one that is no doubt due to the company’s specialization and long history in electronics manufacturing. “We really made some tremendous inroads with SpaceX over the past year,” he says proudly.
However, Strull has also noticed a disturbing new trend in component manufacturing. As quality inspection standards have increased, fewer manufacturers are agreeing to conduct them, leaving, in his view, companies like Air Electro with the burden of inspections and quality control. “Sometimes, the time that’s involved and the costs that can be involved can actually exceed the cost of the product itself,” he says, adding that the company is working to bring in talented professionals to address this challenge.
Air Electro remarkably operates outside of hiring trends in contemporary job markets and is searching for young candidates who hope to remain with the company and not ‘job hop’ after a few years. Marketing Director Nemanja Jokanovic hopes to see employees who are willing to commit and grow their careers. “Primarily what we look at is the ability to ‘strive,’” he says, explaining that the company looks for employees with the desire to grow and learn so that, “as we grow, they can grow with us.”
He expanded on the company’s desire to make younger workers feel welcome and challenged, stating the company’s benefits and work environment have adapted to not only recruit younger workers but also encourage them to stay with Air Electro throughout their careers. In addition, the company is expanding its marketing technology and adapting advanced e-commerce strategies to accommodate the new customer needs. “Online shopping experience is what the market is requesting from us and we are happy to accommodate the needs and grow with the new demands,” adds Nemanja.
The company is active environmentally and, for many years, has been searching for ways to eliminate the use of cadmium – a heavy and highly toxic metal – in its electronics. The company is now experimenting with usable substitutes, and Strull believes there are a good few contenders.
“Where we can design the same product with the same type of performance levels, with a non-cadmium or more eco-friendly material, we are promoting that,” he explains. The company is experimenting with compounds made from zinc, nickel, and Teflon to help phase cadmium out of existing consumer electronics. It is also working to enhance recycling programs for electronics. Many electronics end up in landfills, with precious metals such as platinum, gold, and silver never reclaimed for future use.
Air Electro’s future looks bright, with new growth in the aerospace industry aiding in continuing the company’s long history in the electronics industry. Strull says the company’s collaboration with SpaceX is a sign of the increasing growth in private spaceflight.
“I will say, currently, that it is one of the healthier, more robust industries…within the whole realm of aerospace and defense, the space industry…is very robust right now.” With this new growth into spaceflight compounding its impressive record, there is nowhere the company can go but up.