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Drone Deal Gives Swift Engineering 600 Percent Boost

Watch the Bat 12 take off without a runway! As a subcontractor for Northrop Grumman, the San Clemente firm plans to hire at least 75 workers and increase its manufacturing capacity by 600 percent.

For years, was best known for producing championship race cars, favored by the likes of Michael Andretti and Christian Fittipaldi.  Today, however, the San Clemente firm's top product line no longer lures celebrity drivers into the cockpit.  It never takes the checkered flag.

That's because Swift's focus is now on production of the Bat 12, a military drone aircraft with no pilot and no cockpit.  And when its work is done, it does not go to the winner's circle. Instead, it is snared in a giant net.

It might be less glamorous that the race car technology still produced by Swift, but the Bat 12 is the primary reason the company was recently able to break ground on a new 15,000-square foot, $3-million manufacturing center at its headquarters off Avenida La Pata in San Clemente's commercial district.

Armed with the latest design technology and poised to increase its manufacturing capacity by at least 600 percent, the firm plans to double its workforce by hiring and training 75 technicians.  Or more.

Swift President Jan Refsdal said 75 new hires is a conservative estimate and the firm's investment in San Clemente could increase to $10 million over the next five years.

Thanks to the Bat 12.

"We've been producing four to five vehicles per month, and [Northrop Grumman] is telling us to produce 30 per month," he said.

Swift began developing the Bat 12 unmanned aerial drone in 2009. Northrop bought the patents, then hired Swift to begin producing the craft for the U.S. military.

The Bat 12 can be launched in the field, without a runway, according to Northrop's  website. The drone is used for reconnaisance to help ground troops detect improvised explosive devices.

Swift's subcontract is part of a $26.2-million deal Northrop Grumman and the feds signed in August, according to Defense Industry Daily. Contractors in many parts of the U.S. have a piece of the pie, manufacturing different parts of the drone and launch equipment, but the Bat 12 isn't ready to fly until it leaves the factory floor in San Clemente.

Part of what makes all of Swift's aerospace and racing development possible is the company's virtual wind tunnel.

The Evolution of Swift's Design Process

Swift and its bevy of technical partner companies are on the cutting edge of virtual testing technologies, doing work that used to take up an entire building in a space the size of a restaurant freezer.

In the 1990s, when Swift's primary business was designing race cars, the company plant on the hill overlooking Avenida Pico housed a 15,000-square-foot wind tunnel with a 500-watt motor.

Designed to test parts and vehicles at speeds up to 140 mph, the machine was massively expensive to run and maintain, said Swift's chief scientist Mark Page.

The old wind tunnel—now dismantled to make space for new autoclaves and  rooms to manufacture and cure composites for military planes—required tens of thousands of dollars to manufacture each individual part of a race car, Page said.

"Basically, we start the test with a bucket of parts," he said. "The flow is so complicated around race cars, we try everything we can think of."

Only one in 50 of those parts would make it into the car's final design.

Now, with a new award-winning computer system, Swift can eliminate the expense of fabricating every test part. Engineers instead load the hypothetical part's dimensions into their virtual wind tunnel.

"We're trailblazing this technology ... with our partners," Page said.

Billions of Calculations

Andy Luo runs the wind tunnel software using Computational Fluid Dynamics or CFD.

Whether for military tech or race cars, the program measures aerodynamics with virtual "air" in a four-dimensional grid divided into tens of millions of tiny cubes, some as small as the head of a pin.

Luo said the computer equipment designed by Cray and Netlist has the computing processor power of 18 to 36 MacBook Pros and the RAM memory of  107 to 215 personal computers.

The computers do about five equations per cube of air, sometimes taking all night to crunch the numbers and give operators a visual representation of how any design would work in the real world.

But Refsdal said real wind tunnels are still useful. When Swift hits on a design it thinks is workable, it hires a subcontractor to run tests in a real-life wind tunnel.

Now that CFD programs are so widely available, there is an overcapacity of wind tunnel space in the industry, making it easier and cheaper for Swift to contract out testing, he said.

The Future

Refsdal said Swift's potential investment in San Clemente could skyrocket to $10 million over the next five years, depending on business.

He said he's looking to train technicians due to the dearth of experienced workers in largely white-collar south Orange County.

"It's difficult to find people who want to do technician kind of work," Refsdal said.

Meanwhile, the city has been supportive in getting Swift the permits it needs for its expansion, he said. "They've been very cooperative. We'll need all the support we can get. Aircraft orders are larger than they've ever been in the past. ... The sky's the limit."

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