Gaining altitude: Ottawa's MDS Aero Support sees plenty of runway for growth

Rolls-Royce test site
The new engine test facility designed and built for Rolls-Royce by Ottawa-based MDS Aero Support is five storeys high and covers as much ground as a football field. Photo courtesy MDS Aero Support

After navigating through a turbulent year that saw its revenues plummet during the pandemic, Ottawa’s MDS Aero Support managed to stay the course and stick the landing on the biggest contract in its history.

Founded in 1985, MDS designs and builds facilities that test aircraft engines. It’s a niche market, to be sure, and the locally based firm tends to fly under the radar in its hometown while other tech titans such as Shopify and Kinaxis capture the headlines.

But make no mistake: MDS is every bit as respected in its field as those better-known companies are in theirs. 

The firm’s client roster includes the likes of Airbus, Air France, General Electric and Pratt & Whitney, and MDS recently put the finishing touches on its most monumental project to date: a state-of-the-art test facility in Derby, England, for Rolls-Royce that cost the British manufacturer a staggering 90 million pounds – or nearly $155 million.

“It took a ton of R&D to get there, but it sets a new standard,” says MDS chief executive John Jastremski. “We look at our facilities as … basically a big, complicated laboratory.”

When Jastremski – an affable, down-to-earth guy who uses phrases like “freakin’ cool” to describe his company’s projects – says big, he means it. 

Five storeys high

The new U.K. test facility covers the same area as a football field, stretches five storeys high and has concrete walls that are nearly three metres thick. It took three years to build, a timeline that was extended about six months due to supply-chain logjams, travel restrictions and COVID-related safety measures that restricted the number of workers at the site.

Rolls-Royce is using the space to test its next-generation turbine technology, where it will run the engine at full bore as though it were about to lift a jet off the runway. 

The turbine will be suspended from the ceiling, surrounded by equipment that will be able to restrain the engine’s powerful thrust while also measuring its performance. Rolls-Royce technicians will throw everything but the kitchen sink at the turbine’s spinning blades, even going so far as intentionally breaking parts of the engine to see how it will react to the strain.

“You’re trying to replicate the natural environment, but in a repeatable fashion,” Jastremski explains. 

MDS has dug deep into its bag of engineering tricks to deliver a facility that meets Rolls-Royce’s exacting standards. That includes devices that can measure the thrust of objects as light as a beaver or as heavy as the space shuttle, Jastremski says, with a degree of precision that’s equivalent to detecting “a 20-dollar bill on a keg full of beer.”

"There’s not a ton of companies that can do this. We punch way above our weight."

Rolls-Royce also uses X-rays to inspect the insides of the engines while they’re running. In this case, MDS designed a one-metre-thick steel and concrete shield that can slide into place to protect workers in nearby buildings, working closely with fellow Ottawa-based company Calian’s nuclear and environmental services arm to ensure the building met all the proper safety standards. 

Nearly a third of MDS’s 450 employees had a hand in the massive project. But Jastremski is also quick to credit local partners such as the National Research Council, which helped to construct scale models of the facility, and Calian for their support. 

“There’s not a ton of companies that can do this,” he says. “We’ve got this expertise here. We punch way above our weight.”

It’s clearly a proud moment for Jastremski and his firm, which employs 270 people in the National Capital Region and nearly 200 more at offices in Germany, Russia and the U.K. The last 15 months haven’t always been a smooth ride for companies that cater to an aviation industry that was decimated by the pandemic, and MDS was no exception. Its latest annual revenues are down to about $100 million, from $150 million pre-COVID, as many of its customers put projects on hold while they waited out the economic storm.

But thanks to government support programs, MDS wasn’t forced to make major layoffs. And now that the global economy is starting to show signs of recovery, Jastremski is confident that business will bounce back quickly as manufacturers step up R&D of more energy-efficient engines and aviation industries in emerging markets such as Brazil and China shift into high gear.

And even though MDS is a truly global operation with customers in 23 countries, the Carleton University engineering grad says being immersed in the capital’s thriving tech community has allowed the company to soar.  

“Ottawa is a freakin’ cool place to be,” he says, smiling. “There’s a ton of amazing technology, and there’s a ton of opportunity. The more we can work together to build that ecosystem, the better it is for us and the better it is for the country.”