Engineering Theme Parks with Michael Deneau of Roush Entertainment Systems
Since 2007, Roush Entertainment Systems group (a division of Roush Enterprises) has been designing and engineering the cutting edge of the theme park and entertainment industry as a one-stop shop for its customers.
The group, headquartered in Livonia, Michigan, outside of Detroit, is a full-service product development supplier for theme parks and other entertainment attractions. The company has engineered, designed and manufactured ride seat systems, equipment and animatronics for some of the world’s most popular theme parks. Their work has garnered numerous Themed Entertainment Association Awards for excellence in the development, design and assembly of attractions.
To support the company’s growing presence in the themed attraction sector, Roush is going where many of its customers do business. The company is preparing a facility in theme park hotspot Orlando, Florida, that will allow them to provide their customers in the Central Florida region with enhanced, on-the-ground support.
I had the chance to speak with Michael Deneau, the vice president of Roush Entertainment Systems about the new facility, Roush’s work and the future of the theme park industry.
C101: Can you tell us a bit more about the theme park industry-specific products and services that Roush offers?
Roush develops products based on customer demand and requirements. It’s customers coming to us with a demand, an idea, concept — and we’re the folks that bring it to life. Roush Entertainment Systems Group engineers, designs and manufacturers ride seat systems, show action equipment and high-end animatronics.
C101: So prospective customers typically come to you with a specific problem or need. Can you walk me through that process?
The need is to support various types of theme park projects that begin in “blue sky phase” or “very-early-creative-concept-phase.” We also support build-to-print projects where the design is completed and the customer simply wants us to execute on a set of prints.
We also support projects that are what we call “product refresh” of existing attractions. An example of that would be something that’s been running for 20 years and is getting old and tired. It’s this flagship attraction that they don’t want to get rid of, but it’s getting old and tired and they need Roush to revamp it to today’s standards.
From a process standpoint, Roush supports start to finish. We support early-level concepts; mock-ups; development through engineering, design and analysis; first article (first prototype); end testing; followed by production manufacturing.
We also follow through being a full-service supplier with park install and commissioning. So not only do we build the product, but we make sure that we’re part of the backside of the project.
C101: You guys seem to be involved in many different touch points along customers’ journeys.
I think that’s what makes us unique as a company. We are a full-service supplier. You may find within the industry vendors or suppliers that do one or the other. We’re able to do both engineering and manufacturing.
C101: What types of software do you typically use for these products?
Roush hosts a wide variety of software that supports the design and validation phase. The software that we use is matched with the specific customer requirement. So a customer will come to us and essentially within the contract they will call out the specific software that they want us to use.
Within the design realm, as an overall company, we use it all here at Roush: CATIA, Unigraphic, (Pro/ENGINEER), SolidWorks. We have the ability to work with many different markets. Specific to entertainment or the theme park industry, SolidWorks is really the premier CAD software of choice.
When it comes down to analysis, again that’s really specific to the customer’s needs. As you can imagine, we have a full breadth of analysis folks that support us in entertainment as well as all the other segments that we support as a company.
C101: Can you tell us a bit more about Roush’s engineering support services?
Again, this is the benefit of going to a company like Roush. Sometimes we get ourselves into projects even in the theme park industry where we need to leverage other parts of our organization in order to pull it together. So the engineering support services would include entertainment engineering, powertrain engineering, body engineering, chassis engineering, electrical engineering, test engineering, vehicle engineering and advanced engineering.
And our engineering groups are very closely tied into both testing and manufacturing and assembly, because we also host that. So we’ve got other services that include prototypes, development, fabrication, tooling and assembly.
C101: What led to Roush’s involvement in the themed attraction industry?
Getting into the entertainment market was one of the many examples of Roush’s push to diversify as a company. When people think of Roush, they probably think more automotive. So we as a company were and are continuing to get very aggressive with diversity. I think what made us attractive to the entertainment industry was our brand name and reputation that we’re a turn-key, full-service supplier and that we have financial stability. That’s important to these theme park customers.
The entertainment customer had a requirement for an extremely lightweight ride system and with our reputation and extensive advanced composites capability in the automotive segment (ie. Carbon fiber) Roush was well matched for the challenge.
C101: Obviously, Orlando is a hotspot for the theme park industry. But what specifically made Roush want to expand into such a heavily concentrated area?
Orlando is really the epicenter of all things theme park. We obviously have our customers down there as well as the competitors. Having the location really allows us to focus on engineering and technical support from a locally based engineering team for day-to-day work in the parks.
So it makes sense. We’ve been doing this for over 10 years remotely in Michigan. And it’s been working. But we think there’s a lot of other opportunities that we can capitalize on by being closer. And I think Orlando is also growing beyond theme parks. There’s certainly aerospace, there’s marine, there are a lot of other engineering opportunities as well as manufacturing and assembly — I think we can capitalize on being down there real-time, first-hand.
C101: How many employees will be based out of this new facility?
Going into it, we’re starting with 10 employees, which the majority are people from the Livonia, Michigan area (where Roush is headquartered). As with all of our new locations, our plans are to expand. And really the expansion is going to match the growing customer demands and needs. So we plan on being very aggressive. And with being in Orlando, we believe that we’re going to be able to attract a lot of local talent because of the brand reputation.
C101: Can you describe some of your in-house testing methods? Will you conduct testing at the new facility?
As a company, we certainly do cycle testing; data acquisition; noise and vibration testing; dynamometer testing; emissions testing and on-the-road vehicle testing. Within the new facility, we’re really going to wait and see what the customer demand is going to be. We believe the cycle testing (product validation) and mock up would be a good candidate off the get-go. But we have the ability to deploy and grow the existing testing capabilities that we have in Livonia, Michigan, into our new facility down in Orlando.
C101: What excites you the most about the future of the themed attraction industry? How do you see Roush fitting into that future?
The themed attraction industry has proven to be very stable even during difficult economic downturns. It seems like people continue to go to theme parks regardless of how the economics are working out. I think there’s stability with being in this segment.
The industry continues to expand with new attractions both domestic and international along with the refresh of existing attractions. You can see they’re taking the old stuff, tearing it up and building new. The big players have acquired or are leveraging very exciting intellectual properties, and they plan on developing very high-end guest experiences.
So what used to satisfy folks 50 years ago is a very different thing today. And you’re seeing more immersive guest experience environments coupled with advanced technology. I think Roush is in a great position as an experienced full-service supplier in Orlando to support that growth with our high-end innovative engineering. And that’s what we’re known for — the innovation and the vast manufacturing capabilities that we carry as a company.
C101: Do you have any advice for students or young professionals who are interested in your field of work?
That’s probably one of the best parts about the job, to be able to go out and talk with young folks and try to dial in what to look out for and how to help them with their career paths. The theme park industry requires a high level of creative innovation matched with very stringent requirements — and I mean very stringent requirements. These are all safety critical. It’s not for the faint of heart. You certainly have to put the work in, but it can be very rewarding.
And the reward comes with being able to see the end product, ride the end product and also look at the faces of all the guests coming off of that attraction.
Having a strong understanding of engineering fundamentals is key. A constant challenge is fulfilling both the creative and functional requirements. This is a domain where that element is very unique. You’ve got people with “blue sky” ideas, very creative coupled up with having to execute something that’s functionally robust.
So keep up with the industry by way of social media outlets, blogs and trade shows like IAAPA. ASTM (Committee) F24 is also another realm that is extremely good to get involved with.
If you’re considering to be an engineer on the product side, I would say get familiar with the various manufacturing methods and processes. If you don’t know how a part is made, you won’t be able to design a part.
The other piece of it is to keep up with technology, whether it’s VR (virtual reality) or advanced manufacturing methods. That’s really important. Again, you’re also seeing that with these new attractions, there’s a lot more play on mechanical electronics, so having a background in both is also very beneficial. As things get more complicated, they’re integrating more and more of the electrical elements. I’m a mechanical engineer, and I can speak first-hand that this is becoming more common as the technology changes.
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Roush Entertainment Systems’ Orlando facility is expected to be fully operational in November 2018.
We’d like to thank Michael for taking time out of his busy schedule to speak with us. To learn more about Roush’s work and involvement in the theme park and entertainment industry, visit the company’s website.