An intense dust storm blew through downtown York on Wednesday night, gathering strength on its way to Utah.
That’s not a weather report, but a description of York-made industrial equipment that was on display for visitors as part of an open house at Air Dynamics Industrial Systems Corp.
The Roosevelt Avenue company specializes in air pollution control systems, environmental simulators and industrial vacuum systems. The 50,000-pound behemoth that roared for guests under the roof a former air conditioning factory is one of Air Dynamics’ Desert Wind sand and dust environmental simulators. The simulators are used by the military and aircraft manufacturers to test the effects of desert conditions on everything from electronics to helmets, guns, missiles and jet engines.
The machines do that by blasting the hardware with intense doses of gritty dust, in temperatures of up to 160 degrees. Components from 16 manufacturers go into fabricating the custom simulators, which are assembled by a team of five.
“It’s something that we’re really proud of,” said general manager Aaron Lehman, who spearheaded the design and fabrication of the environmental testing simulator.
That pride runs deep: This is a family business, founded by Lehman’s father, Dan, a U.S. Air Force veteran.
The company’s seventh such machine built since 2009, the latest Desert Wind simulator soon will be shipped to the Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, a U.S. Army testing center for defense against chemical and biological weapons. The York-built machine will aid Army technicians in evaluating how intense desert conditions affect equipment, munitions and weapons.
For the family-run company, founded by a veteran, it’s another opportunity to serve the nation — as the region’s industries have been doing for generations.
“York is a great place for this,” Dan Lehman said. “We have a great workforce.”
That workforce essentially began after Dan Lehman was inspired by a television show a quarter-century ago.
The elder Lehman, who worked on aircraft navigation systems in the Air Force, earned his living as a computer engineer in his first post-military career. But as computer technology began to evolve dramatically in the late 1980s, Lehman began to look toward new opportunities.
Inspired by “This Old House,” the PBS home improvement TV series then hosted by Bob Vila, Lehman installed a centralized home-vacuum system in his own house. Success with the endeavor led him to turn that project into a business.
Soon approached by Harley-Davidson to install an industrial vacuum system in their new paint facility, Air Dynamics made the leap to commercial systems, Lehman said, and never looked back. Clients big and small have purchased the firm’s wares, including Boeing Co.’s aircraft-manufacturing operations near Ridley Park, Delaware County, which installed an Air Dynamics central vacuum system.
The company ultimately expanded into pneumatic systems and related equipment, and today the company manufactures a range of industrial products including vacuums, dust-collection systems and kitchen hoods designed to remove grease vapors and particulate matter to keep commercial ductwork clean in food-service environments.
Previously, the company worked out of a facility at 300 N. Queen St.
In the late 2000s, with America deeply engaged in the Middle East, father and son saw an opportunity to craft their vacuum and particle technology toward military use, as U.S. forces looked to combat not just terrorism, but the effect of harsh desert conditions on equipment.
After initially being approached by a Baltimore-based lab in 2007, the company began its own research into how it might construct a prototype to meet strict Department of Defense standards.
Aaron Lehman played a leading role in the process, with his research leading to patents and prototypes. In 2010, the first Desert Wind system was delivered to the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Crane, Ind.
The business was growing, but so were the simulators. Air Dynamics would need more space.
As it turns out, the York County Economic Alliance had a space that fit the bill. Adjacent to YCEA’s own offices, the brick walls of 180 Roosevelt Ave. sat empty. Looking like a Victorian movie set, the cavernous old factory, with its tall windows and large work bay was built in 1895, with air conditioning equipment built beneath its roof for many years. As Air Dynamics was growing, the site sat empty.
Several years and five patents later, the machines continue to rise in the leased Roosevelt Avenue factory, whose ceilings tower over the Desert Wind machines, themselves the size of small buildings.
State Rep. Kevin Schreiber, the incoming YCEA leader, praised the company’s efforts during Wednesday’s open house as part of York’s long tradition of industrial success.
“I’m preaching to the choir … But (innovation) is stamped into York’s DNA,” he told business leaders and other guests.
That DNA soon will roll west to Utah on a convoy of five or more tractor-trailers, with the Lehmans and their staff in tow.
How do you take such a machine apart for delivery?
“Very carefully” was the unanimous response.
Dust in the wind
Such massive machines are not mass-produced commodity items, and they don’t roll off the assembly line overnight. But with six previous simulators under their belts, the Lehmans and their team seem to have the process down to a science.
Of the seven produced to date, Dan Lehman said two have been built for the Army and two for the Navy. One went to Montreal, for use at an aerospace technology testing facility operated by Canada’s National Research Council. Two portable units were constructed for aerospace manufacturer Pratt & Whitney, which uses them to test fighter jet engines, Aaron Lehman said.
For stationary units like the new Dugway simulator, production time is about nine months from order to completion, Aaron Lehman added.
The process is more intensive than merely assembling components. The machines blast test items with large quantities of silica dust, which is hazardous when inhaled.
So not only do the machines need to meet the high standard of realistically replicating variable desert winds for hours at a time, they need to do so in a manner that is safe for their operators.
For that reason, the company has designed the machines to be loaded with silica using a built-in, automated system that makes the process less labor-intensive and complies with OSHA requirements for industrial ventilation, according to the Air Dynamics website.
How much dust is involved?
Project manager Jeremy Daugherty, who helped design the simulator, said it’s currently configured to spray up to 21 pounds of silica per minute, but can be adjusted to spray more if needed.
Aaron Lehman said the machines also can be set up to spray sand, if that’s what the end user needs. Their climate settings range from ambient temperature up to 160 degrees, he added.
Even with simulations lasting hours at a time, the systems can be easily set in motion and monitored by one person, using digital displays.
“Once it’s running, it’s self sufficient,” Daugherty said.
Operators also can monitor the process through windows which look into the lighted testing chamber, as guests did after munching hors d’oeuvres.
Inside, a rifle mounted on a moving platform rotated slowly as multiple hoses created a swirling cloud of dark silica particles.
“This really is what makes York amazing,” Schreiber said, describing Air Dynamics as the latest in a long line of innovative industrial companies, stretching back before the founding of the York Water Company in 1816 into colonial times.
The Lehmans gave thanks to a dedicated staff and a nurturing business climate.
“We are proud to be a part of Pennsylvania’s manufacturing community,” Dan Lehman said.