Editor’s note: This report was written after I toured the AAON manufacturing campus in Tulsa at the invitation of my friends at the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology (OCAST).
By Jim Stafford
TULSA – Mark Fly can make it rain at the massive Norman Asbjornson Innovation Center on the manufacturing campus of Tulsa’s AAON Inc. And snow.
Fly is executive director of AAON’s new R&D laboratory, a 134,000 square foot building that opened in 2019, and was a key designer of the facility. The Norman Asbjornson Innovation Center (NAIC) consists of 10 testing chambers, some of which can simulate heat, cold, rain, snow, wind and humid or arid conditions to test the durability of AAON’s industrial heating and air conditioning equipment in the most brutal of conditions.
“In our extreme environmental chamber, it can snow up to two inches an hour or rain eight inches an hour and do so with a simulated wind of 50 miles per hour,” Fly told me and colleagues from the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology (OCAST) as he recently led us on a tour of the NAIC.
“Our environmental chambers can be controlled to minus 20 degrees or up to 130 degrees, and humidity from 10 percent well into the 90 percent range,” Fly said. “We can simulate any outdoor environment in the world.”
AAON is a publicly traded (NASDAQ: AAON) manufacturer of commercial and industrial air conditioning and heating units. It employs approximately 1,900 people who work in 1.5 million square feet of manufacturing space at its Tulsa headquarters.
Named after company co-founder Norman Asbjornson, the NAIC provides AAON with testing capabilities that are unequaled in the industry, said Gary Fields, AAON’s president.
AAON employs 47 engineers among its 125-person R&D division affectionately known as “Area 51.”
“The innovation that we are noted for here at AAON is very much accentuated in this laboratory,” Fields said. “R&D has been the core value of AAON since the beginning.”
AAON was founded in 1988 when Asbjornson and partners purchased the heating and air conditioning division of the John Zink Company. Asbjornson is AAON’s CEO and chairman of the board.
Today, AAON employs 2,400 people across the company that also includes locations in Longview, Texas, and the Kansas City, Mo., area. Annual revenue is approximately $500 million from a diverse customer base.
“One of our premier customers that would be noteworthy would be the Jacob Javits Convention Center in Manhattan, N.Y.,” Fields said. “We shipped 26 units that were as much as 77 feet long; each unit took two truckloads to get to the facility.”
Nike Inc., on the west coast, is another premier AAON customer, Fields said.
OCAST has supported AAON’s R&D over the years with Oklahoma Applied Research Support (OARS) projects involving computer modeling on energy measurement and prediction, as well as controls, Fly said. The company also has been a participant in the OCAST Intern Partnerships program that places promising Oklahoma college students in real world work environments.
“Oklahoma has always been a very manufacturing-friendly state,” Fly said. “It is very supportive from both a tax and incentive standpoint, which includes programs like OCAST.”
Fly eventually led us into AAON’s sound test chamber that featured 12-inch thick concrete walls adorned with rectangular metal plates designed to echo sound.
“Customers want to know how much noise the equipment makes, because it may be going into a concert hall or a school,” Fly said as his voice reverberated back to us. “The sound is virtually the same everywhere in this room because of the echo.”
AAON performs acoustical, air flow and thermal testing simultaneously in the sound test chamber, Fields said.
“This capability exists nowhere else in the world,” he said.
Now that’s making it rain.
Jim Stafford writes about Oklahoma innovation and research and development topics on behalf of the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science & Technology (OCAST).