Friday, March 9, 2018
Andrew Feghali (BSME ’12, MBA ’16) became an entrepreneur at a young age – in middle school, he started a lawn service and hired neighborhood children to work for him – and since graduating from UTA he has built a successful fire testing company, Aeroblaze.
Aeroblaze is one of only about 10 companies in the United States that performs burn tests on interior components for aircraft. He is working to expand his testing services to powerplant components, which only a few companies test currently. Many of the tests require custom components and fittings that he makes himself. Some, like the vertical burn test and the seat cushion test, are more run-of-the-mill. The vertical burn test is a generic base test for almost every material in an aircraft. In it, Feghali exposes a component to a flame from a Bunsen burner, then measures how far it burns and for how long. Ideally, once the flame is removed, the component should self-extinguish. The seat cushion test requires him to burn a full-scale sample, then measure weight loss and the ability to keep flame from spreading across the cushion.
“Research and design testing is up to the companies, but once it’s going to be installed on an aircraft, the FAA gets involved, either sending a representative in person or a designated local engineer to watch the test and ensure that it’s done correctly,” Feghali explained. “All dependable testing labs must comply with ISO 17025, and anyone who works with the largest companies must have NADCAP certification, which we have because we want to eventually work with Boeing and Airbus.”
ISO 17025 specifies the general requirements for the competence, impartiality and consistent operation of laboratories. NADCAP, the National Aerospace and Defense Contractors Accreditation Program, is an industry-managed approach to conformity assessment of “special processes” that brings together technical experts from industry and government to work together and establish requirements for approval of suppliers using a standardized approach.
Feghali began his career as a design engineer at Parker Hannifin, working toward his MBA at the same time. The job wasn’t fulfilling because he wasn’t using many of his skills, and he still wanted to run his own company. Two friends who worked in aerospace testing told him he should open a fire lab, but he brushed aside their suggestions. After a trusted friend who had worked in a lab for a long time told him that he’d do fire testing if he could do it all over again, Feghali finally listened.
By then, he’d earned his degree, was newly married, and his wife wanted to start a family. He knew that he needed to act if he was going to start his company, so he quit his job and spent the next six months traveling around the country to learn all he could fire testing. The next seven months were spent buying equipment and setting up the lab, and he opened his doors in November 2016.
“I was confident and not worried at all until I opened my doors and spent three months with no sales. Finally, I made a tiny sale and month after month things kept improving and I knew I could succeed,” Feghali said. “I wanted to be in business for myself, but I really enjoy the engineering side. I’m using the engineering skills I developed at UTA daily as I build my company.”
One of Feghali’s biggest challenges is building his client list, partly because what he does is so obscure, and partly because it’s hard to identify the handful of people at a company who are able to make decisions on who does their testing. He makes cold calls and attends trade shows and conferences to meet people face-to-face and build his contact list, even though he doesn’t enjoy sales.
Like all seniors at UTA, Feghali completed a senior design project prior to graduation, doing structural engineering for a monorail train that would provide high-speed service between Texas cities. During his MBA studies, he won the UTA Business Plan Competition. Those experiences made an impression on him, and he returned to campus last spring to work with a mechanical engineering senior design team to help him develop and design equipment to simulate aircraft panels in flight for burn testing.
“Fire testing is important because regulations are always changing or being added and since it’s such a niche field, there are very few people doing it. I’ve really learned what customers need, and Aeroblaze is constantly evolving to meet those needs. It’s challenging, but I’m using my skills and it’s exciting to see my company growing,” Feghali said.