NUNICA — Over the past decade, Baker Engineering Inc. has taken its 40-plus years of experience in race engine innovation and applied it to the development of futuristic engine technologies for the U.S. military.
Today, about one third of Baker Engineering’s overall business stems from government contracts. Its current projects range from the design and development of a large, opposed-piston, two-cycle diesel engine with turbo-machinery for the U.S. Army to a small “nutating disk” engine for U.S. Air Force unmanned aircraft. Both are considered revolutionary in design.
The two engine concepts are vastly different from one another, and both are completely unlike anything in production anywhere right now, said Susan Jerovsek, marketing director. They’re not likely to be in production for five to 10 years.
“Everything we’re doing is for the future,” said President Jack Jerovsek, Susan’s husband. “The new technologies are going to be lighter and faster because the threats have changed. This unmanned aircraft engine that we’re working on is pretty challenging from a design standpoint. It has the potential to be probably a quarter of the size and weight of a traditional piston-style engine but with the same output.”
Most of the engine prototype work Baker Engineering does for the Army is for ground vehicles, both light track and heavy-wheeled vehicles in the 700-horsepower range.
The couple has owned and operated Baker Engineering since 1996. Jack is an engineer by trade; he spent his early career with Teledyne Continental Motors (now L-3 Communications) in Muskegon as the lead engineer of propulsion systems. During his 10 years there, he made a lot of contacts with defense contractors. Susan has a background in advertising and marketing and handles the company’s promotional activities.
“We got tired of traveling and decided to try something on our own,” Jack recalled. “We bought into this business at a time when there were only three people and the building was only a quarter or a third of the size it is now. We grew it from there, and then tied in with my relationships with the government in the engine development world and brought that into the business also.”
Going into the business, Jack had both the government contacts and the expertise to do engine development, and Baker Engineering, which was established in 1967, already had the machinery and employee know-how, so the Jerovseks set out to expand the company’s manufacturing and testing capabilities so they could capture some of the government procurement work.
Within two years, the company was involved in the U.S. Department of Defense Small Business Innovation Research program, a highly competitive three-phase award program that invests in early stage R&D projects at small technology companies. Through the program, the National Institutes of Standards and Technology solicits scientific and engineering-related research and development proposals from small businesses that respond to specific technical needs it wants to pursue. The program was designed to encourage the conversion of government-funded R&D into technological innovation and commercial application.
Susan handles all the administrative work involved in government contracts, from proposal writing to reporting on contracts while the work is underway.
“Our niche in the government end of it has been in the SBIR contracts,” she pointed out. “If we see a solicitation that has something to do with propulsion or with engines or a certain application that they’re looking for, and some of the technologies that we have might fit that application, then we go ahead and prepare a proposal. We have two in right now that we’re waiting to hear back on any day.”
Most of the government contracts Baker Engineering works on are Phase I and Phase II projects. According to the DOD, Phase I is a feasibility study to evaluate the scientific and technical merit of an idea, and awards are for periods up to 6 months in amounts up to $75,000. Phase II expands on the results of and further pursues the development of Phase I. Awards are for periods up to 2 years in amounts up to $500,000. A company can bid a job as a “firm fixed price” or as a “cost plus fixed fee.”
If the government likes what a company has done in Phase I, it invites the company to submit a proposal for a Phase II contract, Susan said.
“If all that falls into place, they give you a bridging contract between the two phases so you can keep your development work moving. So, once you’re in and all things go right, it’s essentially a three-year contract.”
Phase III is for the commercialization of Phase II results and requires the use of private sector funding.
As Jack explained, the government defines its objectives and general requirements, which tend to be very aggressive. For example, the government may be looking for an engine that has certain horsepower per cubic inch displacement and certain horsepower per unit volume of the package. His company then has to come up with ideas that fit the requirements and that work. The government pays Baker Engineering to develop an engine prototype, and if the prototype shows promise and meets the performance objectives the government is looking for, it will team Baker with a larger manufacturer in a Phase II-Plus or Phase III project, and Baker will serve as part of the development team.
“The tools that we use are basic engineering tools in terms of CAD design and things like that. We get teamed up, too, with other inventors that have ideas,” Jack said. “By funding this, the government owns the rights to the prototype for military applications. That’s what they get out of it. We retain all the rights to commercial applications.”
In a “cost plus fixed fee” program, all the company’s accounting systems and all its costs are audited, both its direct costs and overhead costs, he noted.
“They evaluate that and you sign a letter of agreement that you agree with what their evaluation was, and that’s what you get to bill the government,” Jack said. “It’s worth it. We get to advance technology and advance our business.”
On the race engine side of Baker Engineering’s business, the company offers complete engine design, development, prototyping and testing for high-performance, high-horsepower engines and new engine concepts. In fact, it specializes in turning engine concepts into running prototypes.
The company engineers and builds about 80 engines of different configurations each year for the circle track racing and drag racing markets throughout the Midwest. Its custom engines integrate advanced turbo-machinery, custom components and advanced fuel injection systems, as well as other advanced technology.
Baker has a Dyno Jet chassis dynamometer that measures the horsepower and torque, as well as other things, of just about any kind of four-wheeled vehicle — street cars, race cars and drag racers. The firm has a full staff of engineers, machinists, assemblers and dyno-technicians with experience in diesel, rotary engine, and spark-ignited engine development for a variety of applications.
The company has a complete engine machine shop with CNC capabilities, as well as a fabrication shop that manufactures many one-of-a-kind components in-house.
An offshoot of Baker Engineering is CK Motor Sports, which provides powerboat service, repairs and parts for Poker Run boats, race boats and pleasure boats. Susan said CK Motor designs and builds from scratch about 50 customized, high-performance marine race engines a year, and no two of them are alike. CK Motor Sports serves clients from all over the country.