Stillwater company’s products really are out of this world
Deep in the heart of a test laboratory at Stillwater’s Frontier Electronic Systems sits an imposing piece of equipment that looks as if it could have played a role on a space voyage.
In fact, it has.
The large steel contraption with doors that seal is called a thermal vacuum chamber. It is used by engineers to test critical equipment designed and built by Frontier before it is fitted into place on NASA’s International Space Station flying in orbit above the earth’s atmosphere.
“This is kind of our crown jewel,” said Jim Lee, Frontier’s director of Manufacturing as he led me on a tour recently of the company’s 86,000-square foot headquarters in Stillwater.
“This allows us to simulate a lower orbit environment for items we build for the International Space Station or something similar like satellites,” Lee said.
How did the design, manufacturing and testing of high-tech equipment used in space exploration come to be located on the plains of Oklahoma?
Brenda Rolls, Ph.D., provided the answer. Rolls is President and CEO of Frontier Electronic Systems, which was founded as Frontier Engineering in 1973 by her parents, Ed and Peggy Shreve.
Over the years, Frontier evolved into a high-tech aerospace engineering company that now produces avionics, radar and video distribution systems for aircraft, weapons and spacecraft. Clients include the U.S. government and prime contractors such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, Rolls said.
The company employs 115 people in Stillwater, including 53 engineers. Revenue totaled $22.5 million in 2015 and the company expects that to rise to $28 million this year.
The Stillwater location actually provides an advantage to Frontier as it pursues contracts to produce high-tech products for aerospace and military applications, Rolls said. The geography works because it’s near the center of the country.
Funding support for R&D from the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology (OCAST) has helped, too, she said.
“We have a very strong work ethic here in this part of the country, and Oklahoma is a very business friendly state,” Rolls said. “The people we have worked with at OCAST are just incredible in their commitment to actually helping businesses. And we have the benefit of Oklahoma State University being nearby, and that’s a great recruiting tool for us.”
Frontier has been recognized as Boeing Supplier of the Year four times. Rolls is quick to laud Frontier’s employees for the accomplishments.
“We’re the kind of company that flies under the radar because we can’t publicize too much of what we do,” Brenda Rolls said. “So, our people don’t get a lot of accolades. But they are the best of the best.”
Ed Shreve, who died in 2015, was a Ph.D. engineering professor at OSU when he and Peggy founded the company. Peggy Shreve was named Minority Entrepreneur of the Year in 1984 by President Ronald Reagan.
After reorganization in 1997, the name was changed to Frontier Electronic Systems with Peggy Shreve as CEO.
Brenda Rolls joined the company after the reorganization and assumed her current leadership role in 2008. Her husband, Mark, is a corporate analyst for Frontier.
Nanotechnology has become new frontier for the company, which is working with University of Tulsa professor Dale Teeters to develop a light-weight, long-lasting nano-battery that can be used in a new medical device.
As Lee and the Rolls guided me on the tour of the company’s manufacturing floor and testing labs, the high-tech, high-stakes mission of its operations was on full display.
“We want our customers to feel that when they put our products into whatever they are going to use it in that they have no concerns about it being the best product it can be,” Brenda Rolls said. “Our end users are people in space, people in the war field, flying airplanes. It’s pretty serious.”
As we stepped off the manufacturing floor, Brenda Rolls told me about a recent visit by Boeing officials who brought along an astronaut as a guest.
“We are sending stuff into space, and we have customers coming and saying ‘you guys are great at what you do,’ ” Brenda Rolls said. “And there is an astronaut coming saying ‘we are thankful for companies like you, because when we are up there in space, we need to know the equipment works. We want to come home to our families.’
“It was really touching for me.”