MOSCOW—The breakup of the Soviet Union was a disaster for the engineering community. Guaranteed a job for life under the old regime, tens of thousands of engineers—graduates of the country's top technical universities—were tumbled out into a free-market economy, with no security and few job prospects.
Many of them are driving cabs today. The luckier ones have found jobs with private companies, where a principal design engineer can expect to earn between $1,500 and $2,500 (U.S.) a month, plus some benefits. Starting pay for an entry-level engineer is around $600 to $700 a month, with no benefits. (Little wonder some U.S.-based companies are looking here to outsource some of their engineering and design work.)
But for entrepreneurial thinkers like Vladimer Gnezdilov, the move toward a capitalist economy represented an opportunity to do what many engineers dream about doing: Start a business. A top graduate of Moscow's prestigious Aerospace University with a specialization in systems analysis and controls, Gnezdilov had spent his entire professional life up to that point working for the Russian aerospace industry. Although he had achieved a relatively high-level position at the midpoint of his career, he says he was frustrated and felt limited in his ability to make any kind of impact in the huge military system.
"I was beginning to feel more and more insignificant in my work in aerospace. I wanted to find something else to do that would allow me to use my engineering skills to make a real difference," he says.
A Russian Success Story
As soon as a new law was enacted in 1988 that allowed private enterprises to be established in Russia, Gnezdilov registered his company, calling it PAX. Then he invited a few fellow engineers from the aerospace industry over for a chat.
Gnezdilov's idea was to form a company to design amusement park rides. There was a certain inherent logic in his thinking, given that aerospace engineers are used to dealing with high G-forces—albeit well beyond that of even the highest-thrill amusement park ride—and equipment demanding a high degree of safety and reliability.
The timing was perfect. Few of the several hundred so-called leisure parks built in Russia during Soviet times had any mechanized rides, and many of these facilities had fallen into disrepair. There was also the sense that Russian people, experiencing personal freedom for the first time and liking it, were ready to have some major fun.
Today, PAX is one of the great engineering success stories of post-Soviet Russia. Generating some $80M (U.S.) in revenue in 2003, the company employs 60 engineers (20 from the aerospace industry). It operates a 400,000-sq-ft manufacturing plant outside Moscow that at one point was used to repair military tanks, but had been standing idle when Gnezdilov snapped it up.
Here, PAX designs, builds, and tests roller coasters, Ferris wheels, and free-fall towers and swings, as well as towers for mobile communications. PAX rides are operated at parks not only in Russia, but also all over Europe and Asia—including the highest roller coaster (34m) in the Middle East. And Gnezdilov was in the U.S. recently, hoping to close what will be the company's first deal with an American entertainment company.
Designing out jerk: In this diagram of a PAX Wild Train Roller Coaster, the magnitude of the G-forces is indicated by vertical lines extending from below the track. Maximum G-forces occur at the lowest point of the track, where velocity is the highest. Engineers select the track radius such that maximum allowable G-forces are not exceeded. Transistion to this critical track radius is accomplished through a gradual radius reduction in order to avoid a potentially dangerous and injury-producing phenomenon called jerk, (time rate of change of acceleration thir derivative of position with respect to time).
To showcase its ride technology, PAX operates its own amusement park in the Russian resort town of Gelendjik on the Black Sea. The first true theme park in Russia, it's named not for a rodent, but the famous Russian cartoon character Admiral Vrunky. To complement the various roller coasters, free-fall towers, and a small Ferris wheel at the park, PAX is currently finishing work on a new wheel. With a diameter of 80m, it will be the biggest ride of its type in Russia.
To be sure, the Admiral Vrunky Park does not compare with the size and technological sophistication of a Disney theme park. But Wolf Vierich, chairman of the Vitala Group, and who consults for PAX and to new amusement park projects around the world, stresses that it is a great achievement for Russia. "You have to remember that the entertainment industry here is 35 years behind the U.S., and that the theme park concept is radically new," he says.
In fact, new, modern parks are beginning to spring up all over Russia and Eastern Europe, featuring the latest in high-speed coasters, free-fall rides, and carousels. Optimistic industry insiders predict that the market is growing at a 15% clip, though they admit it's difficult to know exactly how fast or how far the market will grow.
One potential limiting factor is the lack of disposable income for entertainment. "An entrance fee of $10 to a good theme park may sound like a real deal to Americans, but for a Russian that is very expensive," says Vierich. He notes that some amusement parks in Russia offer a free lunch along with the admission fee as an added enticement.
Active Role in Standards
During a recent visit to PAX headquarters outside of Moscow, engineers were getting ready to assemble another Ferris wheel that would eventually be shipped to a customer in Asia. After extensive FEA analysis to ensure that a ride meets applicable design standards, PAX typically builds and tests it out at its own facility. Gnezdilov pointed out that the Ferris wheels are designed to sustain hurricane-force winds of 105 mph. Beyond that speed, not much at all would be left standing.
But it hasn't been just business acumen and engineering talent that have helped make PAX a worldwide name in the amusement park ride industry. The company and its engineers have played an aggressive role in developing Russian amusement park ride design standards and in contributing to international safety standards.
Design optimatization: FEA software (MSC/Nastran) helps engineers tweak the structural elements of their ride designs to meet allowable stress levels. THese FEA outputs illustrate the progression of design iterations for a flanged joint of a Ferris wheel support. Specifically, the analysis is for a supporting pipe with a flange on a bolted connection loaded with an axial force.
Ten years ago, Gnezdilov and Boris Rabinovitch, a professor at Moscow Aerospace University, founded RAAPA, the Russian Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions. One of the principal goals of RAAPA is to develop ride safety standards for the Russian market. These standards, which are based on the German DIN 4112 and ASTM standards, helped PAX obtain ISO and TUV certification, as well as approval from U.S. ride experts—steps required to sell its products internationally.
Gnezdilov, who is president of RAAPA, says that while the accident rate per se is not a major problem at Russian amusement parks (actual statistics aren't available), the standards were driven in large part because the industry was interested in reducing the potential for injuries. Of particular concern were rides imported into Russia from some other countries and sold mainly on price. "Some of it was really bad, cheap stuff," he says.
In July 2003, the Russian government took a significant step forward by adopting new technical regulations that among other things require that companies submit engineering calculations for high-tech rides, parks comply with safe maintenance procedures, and park owners report accidents. "The countries that have developed these kind of certification and supervision systems have achieved a much higher level of safety than those that do not," Gnezdilov says.
One of the most important contributions made by this group of former Russian aerospace engineers was to the development of G-force limits addressed in a new ASTM standard regarding amusement park ride design, finalized in late 2003. The establishment of limits (which vary by exposure time) came out of much debate and controversy over what level of G-forces is sufficient to cause brain injuries.
Low-stress engineering: PAX engineers do extensive FEA analysis to ensure that stresses in the rides' structural elements do not exceed the allowable stresses as specified by DIN 4132. The scale at left indicates the stress levels in MPa in the track's structural elements.
"When we first set up the company, we had no idea what level of G-force on a high-speed ride a person can safely stand," explains Gnezdilov. "Therefore, in 1989 we began investigating this issue together with space medicine experts and Professor Boris Rabinovitch at Moscow University. We have been working together for many years and have even tested out the theoretical results on our own rides using dummies instrumented to measure acceleration in three axes."
By any measure, PAX' efforts to create an amusement ride industry in Russia have been successful, spawning many competitors along the way. RAAPA's main trade show, which takes place annually in April in Moscow, drew 120 exhibitors in 2003—four times the number of just two years ago.
Three dozen exhibitors were on hand at a RAAPA conference on the development of the industry at the Lomonosov Resort on the Black Sea in September 2003, including Vladimer Tikhonovich. Employed by the military during the Soviet era, he's now President and Chief Engineer of a small amusement ride manufacturing company based in Moscow. His company, which he says posted $300K in sales of carousels and free-fall rides last year, had a small stand in the exhibit hall.
Tikhonovich's primary goal? Duplicate the success of a PAX.
Chief Editor Karen Auguston Field can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.