When your livelihood depends on carrying payloads through the airspace connecting more than 100 communities in Alaska, you can’t leave anything to chance. For airline Ravn Alaska, the new solution for getting critical flight safety and weather information to its Dash 8 pilots comes from thousands of miles away.


Universal Avionics’ MFD-890R multi-function display was selected by the airline for its DeHavilland DHC-8-100, the 37-seat planes whose operators are gaining access to a previously unavailable level of weather data along with terrain and obstacles awareness. Ravn Alaska operates direct flights between its base in Anchorage and cities like Fairbanks and Homer, but the majority of destinations are smaller villages that rely on the airline for deliveries and medical services as well as regular travel.


This is just one example of what Universal Avionics, a leading manufacturer of innovative avionics systems based in Tucson, offers through retrofit and when aircraft are built and customized for delivery. Its solutions are found in the largest diversification of aircraft types in the industry, serving markets that besides regional and commercial airlines include business, special missions, government and military, helicopter and original equipment manufacturers (OEMs).


“Diversification really helped us” while others were challenged by recent defense cuts, says Steve Pagnucco, the company’s vice president of operations, manufacturing. “Sequestration was not a major hit for us.”


The same situation occurred in 2007 when OEMs trimmed staff and their businesses slowed down, but the aftermarket business helped Universal Avionics to continue humming right along. “The diverse customer base is helpful,” Pagnucco says.


Such a track record contributed to the company being recognized by the Arizona Manufacturers Council as Outstanding Small/Medium Manufacturer of the Year in 2014 — its second time since 2009. Each year the Arizona Manufacturers Council, sponsored by the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, selects a manufacturer that produces superior products, provides high quality jobs and demonstrates a strong commitment to Arizona.


"We have ignored the trend of our industry and competitors to outsource key operations," Pagnucco says of the reason for being recognized. "Instead, we have focused on efficiencies in our operations and leveraged the huge advantages in control of quality and flexibility to meet customer demands. Our facility features innovative equipment run by an extremely talented and engaged workforce using the principles of lean manufacturing and Six Sigma quality."


Universal Avionics has produced a number of first-to-market technologies. Controlling the manufacturing process helps the company maintain speed to market. “Customer responsiveness is key to success,” Pagnucco notes.


His experience puts into context how Universal Avionics has built its reputation. After spending more than a decade working at larger operations, he joined the company in 1999 as general manager of manufacturing. Pagnucco was intrigued by this smaller company that could compete against larger players like Honeywell and Allied Signal, where he worked previously. And he loved the story that was “essentially run by pilots for pilots.”


He was referring to Hubert L. Naimer, who founded Universal Avionics in 1981. As a business jet pilot, he used four or five separate pieces of equipment for navigation. He came up with the details of a "master navigation system," which led to the development of the world's first flight management system (FMS) with a single solution in one box.


Now celebrating its 35th anniversary, Universal Avionics has expanded its product line and delivered breakthrough technologies with safety improvements, situational awareness and operational benefits for operators. In addition to FMS, its primary product lines include primary flight and multi-function displays, data link/communications management unit (CU) systems, and cockpit voice and data recorders.


Such variety has helped boost the company’s reputation for responsiveness, reaction and speed to market. With a just-in-time approach to manufacturing, many specific customer needs are identified when dealers work on planes for other services. It would be difficult to keep in stock all that they sell, so they create products quickly. “We’re 100 percent build-to-order,” Pagnucco says.


Pagnucco says this means Universal Avionics can react to customers’ changing demands or make improvements as quickly. “We can easily redesign things and make it happen,” he says.


For example, as the growing community of Dash 8/Qs — the sister plane of Ravn Alaska’s Dash 8 — are being deployed for special operations activities, the MFD-890R has been made night vision goggle-compatible and can display video from mission systems and electro-optical and infrared sensors.


Making these changes is the innovative manufacturing team, which numbers 80 to 90 of the 250 employees based at the company headquarters in Tucson. To get the manufacturing done, Pagnucco says the company has had a lot of luck hiring locally.


It has worked with The University of Arizona and Pima Community College to get trained workers. The company is part of the advisory board of the community college’s Aviation Technology program. When beginning to build its staff in 1999, it also worked with the college and Pima County in the High-Tech/High Wage program to train more than 20 people who in turn found jobs at Universal Avionics. Pagnucco is also on the industry advisory board of the university’s College of Engineering, with his company sponsoring senior capstone projects. “We love to hire interns,” he says.


Once workers start with Universal Avionics, they tend to stay. Over the last 17 years, the average seniority of hourly and salaried workers has become more than 12 years. Pagnucco credits an environment that’s clean and comfortable, and where workers treat each other with respect.


Add to that the more than 250 workers in Tucson earning above-average wages, he says, creating “a big help to the economy.” Plus, with 60 percent of total spending going to Arizona suppliers, “there’s a big push to buy locally.” Also, customers are national and international, so “those revenues come back to Tucson,” Pagnucco says.


He credits the cooperative spirit of Tucson’s manufacturing community for helping Universal Avionics experience success. Pagnucco has worked in other places where companies don’t even talk with one another, let alone share information. “There are good relations all the way around,” he says. “It’s been a really good environment.”


Photo credit: Airliners.net