We have another exciting interview feature for you this week. Timothy Swieter is a professional engineer with Birket Engineering and his resume includes several high profile projects including Universal Studio Singapore and Hong Kong Disneyland.
Thanks Tim for taking the time to answer our questions. Could you please tell us a little bit about Birket Engineering and what their role is in the amusement and theme park industry?
I work for Birket Engineering (www.birket.com). Birket is an electrical and software engineering company that has been designing and building control system for theme parks for 25+ years. More info about the company can be found here: http://www.birket.com/aboutus
In 2004 we started doing more work in Asia with the promise of Universal Studio Shanghai and Hong Kong Disneyland, among other projects. Since then we have established a solid presence in Asia with offices in Hong Kong, Singapore and Shanghai in addition to our office in Winter Garden, FL.
Our company will work on projects ranging from entire attraction control systems (design, production, installation, commissioning) to consulting or system review of other people’s work. We really like to design and build a system from scratch. We excel at doing the dangerous stuff that others haven’t tried before. Like setting off pyro and flame effects in precise sequencing with an actor on a jet ski going off a jump. Sometimes though we get to only build systems designed by others, which we have used our facilities in Winter Garden, FL or Shanghai for. Our systems could be “simple show control” such as synchronizing lights, audio, video and effects or they could be life-safety, intricate ride and show control systems involving high speed vehicle, flame effect, pyro effects, stunt actors or guests, etc.
Born out of the connections in the entertainment industry we have started a company called Birket Specialty Lighting which makes products as well as specialized one-off effects for theme parks, parades, events, etc.
I’m always amazed at the vast array of skills and disciplines required to design and build a theme park attraction. So what is your role and how did you get involved?
I started work for BE in October of 2003, but my story begins before then. I grew up in Michigan. For family vacations we often visited Walt Disney World. I recall wondering when I was younger who built and designs the attractions and parks and it was then that I learned about Imagineering. Of course this was well before the “internet age”, so my research was through books and the library. I attended Kettering University, which gave me four years of a great co-op engineering experience. Throughout college (the internet started to take off) I never lost sight of wanting to work in the entertainment industry and I made several contacts through research on the web, e-mail, attending engineering talks and visiting IAAPA. It was over e-mail that I met Glenn Birket (Birket Engineering’s owner) and he gave me the opportunity I have always wanted. Little did I know at that time what a wild ride my career was taking off on.
When I first started working at Birket I was thrown into the Revenge of the Mummy project at Universal Orlando. Birket Engineering partnered with Premier Ride for providing the ride of this attraction and our scope was all the hardware and software control system including the track switches, the launches, dark ride motion and station. Right out of college there I was commissioning an amazing dark ride/LIM launched roller coaster!! (actually I hadn’t officially graduated yet. I had to cutout of ride commissioning for a short trip back to MI to graduate).
In 2007 Birket Engineering decided it was time for a ‘western engineer’ to move to Asia to help be a bridge to our clients and our vendors and our Asian resources. At that time we were starting to build up our Asian staff. I had just gotten married and my wife and I thought it would be a great experience so we jumped at it. Now I’ve been living in Asia for over four years. The first two years I lived in Hong Kong. While in HK I helped to commission the show control system for Hong Kong Disneyland’s It’s a Small World. I also worked on product development and China Sourcing for our products, clients, etc.
In 2009 I moved to Singapore to join our team that was tackling the Universal Studios Singapore project. We had so many projects going on for this park, but through a twist of irony I got to lead the Revenge of the Mummy project, which happens to be nearly identical to the Universal Orlando project, my very first theme park project. It was an interesting project because, for the most part, the walls and rooms and everything were built the exact same. The building contractors in Singapore even made some of the exact same mistakes that were made in Orlando because the architectural specifications weren’t updated to As-built from Orlando! But with that said there were some building code differences such as where door could be placed, so it took a couple weeks for me to relearn the facility and to stop running into walls (running into a wall where I remember there being a door in Orlando but didn’t exist in Singapore).
Sounds like quite the adventure! What has been the most challenging theme park project you’ve been involved with and why?
Every theme park project has its own set of challenges or deadlines. Each project has a story to it. For me though, the projects that are the hardest is when a client or vendor doesn’t “play well” with others. Building an attraction is a team experience. There are tough deadlines, challenging problems and great expectations and when you combine these with budgets, small companies (vendors doing the work), etc you get a pressure cooker of a situation. So, a project team usually becomes a team because they are all handling the same pressure and working towards the same goal. This isn’t to say that we always get along, but in the end we all know who worked hard. Every now and again there are those vendors or certain people that make the project so much more difficult and it is those times when you get really stressed out.
For me, and many people in the industry, building an attraction is project work. That usually requires long travel periods and intense work. This can be tough on relationships. I’ve been fortunate to be able to have my family with me, but it is still difficult when working 80 hour or more weeks for months on end.
It must take a lot of dedication to put in eighty hour weeks for months at a time but I’m sure the end result of seeing happy guests coming of the rides makes it all worth it. One question our readers often ask of engineers and designer is what software do you use?
For my work, there isn’t any super secret stealthy application. Nope. It has to be software that is rock solid and reliable. That is, in our machine designs we use PLCs such as those from Allen Bradley or Siemens (we are an integrator of both). We also use Medialon equipment for show control, video and audio play back. For one of our recent projects we worked with Medialon to create a mxm (like a driver) for the Showmaster Pro so it can speak effortlessly with an Allen Bradley PLC. Now our work is near perfect – we get our safety and we get our clean show scripting.
Sometimes we might write a custom piece of software in Visual Basic. The laptops of our engineers has the standard Microsoft office set of applications. What engineer would be without Excel? We also like to make use of VMware to create our project development pc, it makes it easy to archive a machine and years later to be able to boot it up and be right back where you left the attraction (so it is easy to get on the network and use the same software you used when commissioning the attraction). For designing we use Autocad, Visio, and plenty of written documents. For collaboration in our company we are stuck on SharePoint – it works, but we bet there is better, we just don’t have time to dig into it. Being that I live in Asia and our team is spread across Asia and the USA, I will often use skype for voice, video or chat.
I know exactly what you mean about Excel- I use it everyday. AutoCAD is a popular one but I wonder how much longer it will be around with programs like Dassault’s Draftsight being given away for free while still including all the same features. Since this is for Coaster101, I have to ask, what is your favorite roller coaster?
I really enjoy Revenge of the Mummy Singapore. The story is improved from the Universal Orlando version and the launch is a little bit stronger. However the bump out of Imhotep’s Tomb/Book of Life scene is not as good as the one out of the False Ending in Orlando.
I’m also a big fan of B&M suspended coasters with my original favorite being Raptor at Cedar Point. I remember going on this coaster in my first trip to Cedar Point ever. I was there the summer the Raptor opened and it was love at first ride.
The Mummy: The Ride at Universal Studios Orlando is probably my favorite coaster in the state of Florida and I wold love to try the other versions. Well Tim, thanks again for giving us a few minutes of your time and giving all of the future theme park engineers out there a small taste of what it’s actually like working on these amazing amusement attractions that we all cherish and love.
Learn more about Tim by visiting his website.