When a pilot starts a turbine- or piston-powered aircraft, chances are good the ignition system or its components were made at Champion Aerospace in Liberty. The business, with more than a century of aviation history and a brand well known to automotive parts consumers, has manufacturing operations and research and development labs in a 220,000-square-foot facility. Inside the inconspicuous exterior, a runway runs the length of the main manufacturing floor, and the cafeteria-canteen has a hangar design.
Part of the Cleveland-based TransDigm Group, Champion Aerospace has 250 employees at its lone plant. Employees design and manufacture brand-name igniters, exciters and leads for turbine engines, as well as spark plugs, magnetos, oil filters and ignition harnesses for piston-powered airplane engines.
In a turbine engine ignition system, the exciter takes input current from the aircraft electrical system, steps up the voltage, and delivers a high-voltage output signal through the ignition lead to the igniter. The igniter sparks when its gap is ionized, and the field between the center electrode and igniter shell breaks down. Champion employees also provide standard and custom configured aviation power supplies.
Company President Jason Marlin said ignition systems are noticeable “once you are on the tarmac to start the engines. ... Typically they are not firing the ignition system the whole time they are flying, but there are certain instances when they would. So if it’s icy or inclement weather they would turn on the ignition, just in case the engine flames out. It would automatically start again. On landings if it’s foul weather they would turn on the ignition.”
Another instance when an ignition system is used is in the event of an engine flame-out, pilots have to drop to a certain altitude and use the system to relight the engines. Marlin said the company makes ignition systems for auxiliary power units that can power an airplane’s lights or entertainment systems.
Describing Champion Aerospace as “very vertically integrated,” Marlin said that includes producing powder for ceramic products.
“We make our own powder. We fire it. We form it and machine it, as well as our semiconductors and the tips of our igniters, so we are doing all that ourselves,” he said.
A company statement shows Champion Aerospace has more than 300 different igniter designs, 150 lead designs and more than 50 exciter designs in production. The ignition system products are specified as original equipment on engines by companies like General Electric, General Electric Power & Water, Honeywell, Pratt & Whitney, Rolls-Royce, Siemens, Volvo and Westinghouse. Champion Aerospace is also a preferred tier-one Ignition System Supplier to Eterline and UTC Aerospace Systems. The company also makes ignition systems for the power industry that include land and marine turbines; oil, gas, and coal furnaces; space applications; oil rig operations; and pumping stations.
Marlin said a previous owner relocated the company from Toledo, Ohio, to the Upstate in the late 1980s, which he said was mainly because of a strike by the United Auto Workers Union.
“We make a lot of sole-source parts,” he said. “We are the only manufacturer of B-1 bomber and B-2 bomber igniters. The airplane can’t go very far if you can’t light the engine. So the men in black kind of came and said, ‘Hey, we can’t have this risk. You need to set up a separate operation for our defense parts.’ So that is what kind of started the move to South Carolina.”
Marlin said “the fact that we’re kind of a nonunionized state and the tax benefit I believe is what drove them to pick this location.” He said the former owners moved the aerospace business to Liberty and left the automotive part in Ohio. In 2001, Transdigm purchased the company; it has more than 30 aerospace units globally.
Marlin said military contracts represent about 14% of the Champion Aerospace business, about $15 million to $20 million annually. Those contracts range from domestic to foreign entities.
“Some of that is direct with the U.S. government, but there is other defense business with the (original equipment manufacturers) and with the GEs of the world,” he said.
Most of Champion’s business is in sole-source, proprietary products, Marlin said. The defense side is a little more competitive as he said close to 50% of the defense aftermarket business is dual source. General Electric is a competitor because GE owns Unison. But, Marlin said that competition is good for business and “the government has done a good job of forcing that competition.”
On the commercial side, Marlin said Champion products are on new aircraft, such as the Airbus A320 and the Boeing 737. He said the company is also making ignition systems for next engine options produced by Airbus and a pure power engine from Pratt & Whitney. Marlin said there is “not a whole lot of business direct with Boeing,” though Champion Aerospace is a supplier.
“Our ignition systems are on the engines that they are building for the (Boeing) 787s in South Carolina, so the Rolls-Royce Track 1000 engine has a Champion ignition system on it,” Marlin said. “The lion’s share of our business is to the engine OEMs like a Rolls-Royce or Pratt & Whitney or GE, the guys that are building the engines.”
As for growth opportunity, Marlin said General Electric could provide more on the commercial side for Champion. However, GE owns Unison, a competitor of Champion, so Marlin said investing in research and development as well as technology in order to beat the competition is what Champion is striving for. He said Champion continuously works on solid-state technology for the exciter part of the ignition system. They also focus on ignition leads and new ignition technology like plasma ignition.
Additionally, work on the Pratt & Whitney F135 engine that is part of Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is “ramping up” as Champion manufactures the ignition system for the F135 main engine and afterburner.
“That is the fighter of the future for all the allied forces. So it is a huge ramp up growth program. You see it in the media all the time. It is overspent to the budget. There is a big spotlight on it because it is so much money that the Department of Defense is spending on that airplane,” Marlin said. “Even if they do reduce the rate a little bit they are going to make a lot of them and it is a big program, not only for Lockheed Martin.”
Marlin, a member of the S.C. Aerospace Advisory Boardorganized in 2015 to promote and grow the industry in the state, said the S.C. Department of Commerce and the board are “doing everything we can to get more aerospace businesses down here. It is heading in the right direction. Certainly Boeing helped that.”
Marlin said he is working with Clemson University, Greenville Technical College, Tri-County Technical College and local schools in recruiting employees and supporting growth of “programs that are more aerospace targeted.”
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