For nearly four decades, engineers at a nondescript office in an east-end industrial park have been doing their part to serve their country in a unique way: by building cutting-edge diagnostic tools that help keep engines running smoothly in everything from military search-and-rescue helicopters to fighter jets.
They don’t get much fanfare, and they don’t seek it out either. Their company, Gastops, has been doing just fine despite garnering much less publicity than many of its fellow Ottawa tech trailblazers.
Founded in 1979 by a group of Carleton University engineering grads led by former CEO Bernie MacIsaac, Gastops has quietly built a fervently loyal base of customers ranging from the Canadian and U.S. militaries to manufacturers such as Pratt & Whitney, which makes engines for a host of military and commercial clients around the world.
The 130-employee firm specializes in sensors that detect and measure metallic contaminants in engine oil – a sort of aviation “blood test” that allows technicians to spot an array of potential problems and stop them before they happen.
As current chief executive Dave Muir explains, vital engine parts such as ball bearings eventually start to grind down and wear out, even with the presence of oil as a lubricant. His company’s products function like an early warning system that alerts mechanics to what parts of the engine are most at risk of failure.
“What we’re trying to do is pick up the wear at a very early (stage) and prevent the breakdown of the machine,” says the aerospace engineer, who graduated from Carleton and joined the company in 1981.
Keeping aircraft engines humming is a dirty job, so to speak, but the folks at Gastops are happy to do it.
“We’re kind of like a hidden success story within Ottawa,” says Mr. Muir, whose quiet, unruffled demeanor epitomizes the firm’s low-key approach. “We’ve been very successful.”
Besides its Polytek Road headquarters, Gastops also has offices in Halifax and St. John’s as well as a partner firm, Gastops USA, based in Huntsville, Ala., to serve U.S. customers.
About 100 people work at its main plant in Ottawa, where the firm conducts most of its market-leading research and development.
The products they’ve created are turning heads throughout the aerospace industry, says Iain Christie, executive vice-president of the Aerospace Industries Association of Canada.
“This is technology that nobody else has. It really is the epitome of what the government talks about when they talk about the innovation agenda.”
“This is global-leading technology,” he says. “This is technology that nobody else has. It really is the epitome of what the government talks about when they talk about the innovation agenda.”
Gastops’ latest innovation, known as ChipCheck, debuted at the end of 2016 and has already landed a couple of blue-chip airlines as clients.
“It’s getting a lot of interest in both the military and commercial aviation markets,” says Mr. Muir.
ChipCheck is a computerized system that determines the contents of debris found in oil in just minutes. The system scans the debris – which can often be thinner than a human hair – and displays what alloys it contains and how serious a threat it poses.
Prior to ChipCheck, such fragments needed to be sent to laboratories for analysis, a process that could take days and cost aircraft operators millions of dollars in lost revenue, says product manager Ryan Miller.
“What ChipCheck does is it brings that laboratory capability right where they need the answers,” he explains, noting the U.S. army and air force have both expressed interest in the technology.
Among the other aerospace industry giants that have been bowled over by Gastops’ technical wizardry is Lockheed Martin.
Earlier this month, the Maryland-based multinational agreed to invest $4.7 million in the Ottawa firm as part of Lockheed Martin’s contract to maintain Canada’s fleet of C130-J Super Hercules military transport planes. In the announcement, Lockheed Martin Canada chief executive Charles Bouchard hailed Gastops as a “local small business that is making a name for itself on the world stage.”
Mr. Muir says the new funding will help Gastops fine-tune its technology to allow even more detailed analysis of oil and its contaminants.
“The project with Lockheed takes that basic capability to another level,” he says.
Self-financed and employee-owned, Gastops has an expanding list of customers in the wind turbine and oil and gas industries, which both rely heavily on aircraft-type engines to run their operations.
Mr. Muir concedes the oil industry’s downturn has stunted the firm’s prospects in that sector, but overall he says he’s happy with Gastops’ growth trajectory, which he called “steady and upward.” The company’s revenues, which reach well into eight figures, are continuing to rise, he adds.
Calling Gastops the proverbial “overnight success that’s been 20 years in the making,” Mr. Christie says the firm’s staunch commitment to research – it invests nearly 10 per cent of its annual revenues in R&D, which he says is three or four times what many tech companies its size spend – is paying off.
“I think they have put their money where their mouth is and spent their profits on generating a better product,” he says. “They’re behaving in all of the ways that an innovative company does, and they’ve been doing it successfully for a long time, which is even more impressive.
“They’re not a one-hit wonder or a one-trick pony. I’m really pleased to see this kind of success, because if there’s anybody in this industry that’s earned it, it’s the guys at Gastops.”