From a simple aeration product to a global leader in wastewater treatment, Aqua-Aerobic Systems has built its success upon a foundation of research, engineering and strategic relationships all positioned with growth in mind. Step inside the firm’s Loves Park, Ill., headquarters and see what major milestones and developments have built the firm into a global powerhouse for manufacturing and engineering.
It all started with a simple, innovative product. And from that one device began what’s been a journey five decades in the making for Aqua-Aerobic Systems, in Loves Park, Ill.
The introduction of the Aqua-Jet surface aerator in 1969 proved especially powerful in the wastewater treatment industry, where oxygenated water helps to power the microorganisms that break down our waste. The Aqua-Jet was designed so simply that it quickly outcompeted similar products.
“I wasn’t working for Aqua at the time, but I remember the amount of interest it attracted in the industry when it came out; it solved a lot of problems,” says Peter Baumann, President/CEO of Aqua-Aerobic Systems. “It was easily deployed, so it got a lot of interest early on.”
From the success of that one device rose a company that has continued evolving with customer demands, the needs of a global marketplace and an ever-changing regulatory environment.
Today, as Aqua-Aerobic Systems looks back on its first five decades, it stands as a mighty player in the world’s wastewater treatment industry. Its products operate on nearly every continent of Earth, and its supply chain depends heavily upon the manufacturing prowess of the Rockford region. Its specialty in applied engineering gives the company a competitive advantage that encourages constant innovation.
“I think we’re contributing to mankind by making the water cleaner,” says Baumann. “I think that’s the thing that excites me the most. You see the water coming in is grey and smells bad, and when it goes out it’s crystal clear – even better than the water in the river. And we have a large impact on making that happen around the world.”
A Solution for That
Wastewater treatment is a simple enough concept: put in dirty water, get clean water out. But the mechanics of breaking down your wastewater are surprisingly complex.
In your municipal sewage system, for example, there’s probably a biological process that uses microorganisms to break down waste and begin “cleaning” the water. The sludge, or broken-down waste, settles to the bottom of a large tank. Cleaner water at the top is passed through additional filtration.
Processes like those built by Aqua-Aerobic Systems work in a wide variety of settings, far beyond municipal water. You’ll find these products at work in the paper and pulp industry, the textile industry, food manufacturing and even at power plants, where water is used as a coolant for coal or nuclear-based generators.
Built upon its growing experiences, Aqua-Aerobic Systems now offers clients an end-to-end solution. Not only can they build the system but they can provide the engineering and design to build it, followed by the aftermarket support to keep it running.
The company’s strength in applied engineering was a strategic pivot in the mid-1980s, as the company launched its AquaSBR. It works with a process that brings wastewater in one end and sends treated water out the other. AquaSBR opened the door for a new way of winning clients.
“We saw an opportunity to sell our aerator into the SBR process, but then we quickly found that, if we didn’t know how to design the SBR, we weren’t going to sell the aerator,” says Baumann. “So, we became a systems supplier.”
The 1980s also brought Aqua-Aerobic Systems’ emergence into the filtration business. By 1994, the firm had become a licensed supplier of cloth media filters – devices that essentially look like wedges of plastic covered in carpeting. The cloth is specially designed to block solid waste from passing through. The Swiss-based company that originated these filters, Mecana, was acquired by Aqua-Aerobic Systems about a decade ago, following several decades of strategic partnership.
“We’ve tried to stay on the cutting edge of both the biological and filtration marketplaces, and that’s where our success has been,” says Baumann. “We try to either answer a customer’s need that’s not being answered or to do it for a lower operating cost.”
The firm has added products and competitive processes over the years, in part through strategic partnerships and mergers, and partly through in-house research. Recent advances include an ozone system that disinfects drinking water; a “membrane” technology that filters water through straw-like devices; and the AquaNereda, which maximizes the output of organisms in a biological filtration system. Each is patented, either through Aqua-Aerobic Systems or through the partner organization.
“I think innovation is a big advantage for us,” says Baumann. “We have products or processes that have some kind of patent protection or proprietary knowledge that’s difficult to duplicate.”
Knowledge is Power
Today, Aqua-Aerobic Systems provides a number of products that help to filter wastewater, but it’s the process engineering that ties it all together. Applied knowledge – from the engineering team to the research-and-development team to the firm’s unique education team – is what truly drives Aqua-Aerobic Systems’ present business model.
“Clients don’t carry the staff they used to carry with expertise in the biological processes and filtration systems,” says Baumann. “When they get a project, they look to the equipment suppliers to help them with the design and make sure the whole system works. Rather than just supplying one part, we’re actually looking at the whole system and making sure everything ties together, so the client gets the result they’re looking for.”
To ensure Aqua-Aerobic’s products are working correctly, the research and development team is constantly testing the firm’s equipment in real-world applications. Tucked away inside a corner of Rockford’s Rock River Water Reclamation District facility, Aqua-Aerobic maintains an independent test center where it can put new technologies to the test.
“In the past, if we wanted to test a new technology, we had to find a wastewater plant that would let us in,” says Baumann. “Then, we had to set up tents, run hoses, supply power, and we were fighting the elements – and at times, woodchucks.”
But with a permanent facility for testing new ideas, the firm now plugs its products directly into Rockford’s wastewater treatment process.
“All we have to do is hook up our equipment right to lines running through the plant, and we’ve got real wastewater,” adds Baumann. “So, we’re spending less time fooling around with our tents and wires and cables and so on, and more time actually doing research.”
There’s an art to keeping Aqua-Aerobic’s systems operating properly, so education has become an additional value-add to the firm. The company’s high-tech education center in Loves Park regularly hosts training sessions and in-depth seminars for potential and current clients. The center includes videoconferencing capabilities and outdoor demonstration areas where students can observe Aqua-Aerobic prototypes in action.
The Local Connection
The local partnership with RRWRD is just one of many advantages Baumann finds the Rockford area provides to Aqua-Aerobic, even as the firm maintains an international profile.
Walk through Aqua-Aerobic Systems’ Loves Park headquarters and you’ll notice there isn’t much actual manufacturing space. What is there is reserved mostly for assembly of parts. Baumann estimates about 20-40% of the firm’s supply chain is located within the Rockford area.
“What keeps us here, I think, is that there’s an established supply chain in the area,” he says. “We get great service on fabrications. There are suppliers that can do the plastic molding we need, and control panel shops that take care of us.”
What isn’t supplied locally typically comes from Aqua-Aerobic Systems’ strategic partners and subsidiaries in Europe.
“But when it comes to fabrications, they exclusively come from this area,” he adds. “We need big steel tanks. Those get made locally. The small stainless steel components are made locally. All of our control panels are made locally.”
Given the company’s global footprint, Aqua-Aerobic Systems has also established relationships in key areas where it can benefit from the local strengths of others. Licensees operating in countries like China receive critical components and intellectual property from Aqua-Aerobic, but they provide their own additional components and manpower.
“They use local control panels because they know the electrical codes,” says Baumann. “They use local pumps because, if something goes wrong, they can be serviced quickly.”
Lately, it seems, more of the firm’s important hires have been made locally, as well. Baumann finds recruits from faraway places like Colorado don’t tend to stay in Rockford as long as people with strong local ties.
“So, we’ve taken to hiring people who may not exactly fit the formal training we’d be looking for,” says Baumann, “but they do have a background in some aspect of what we’re looking for and they fit our culture, and they want to remain based in the Rockford area.”
Shifting focus to local hires has brought some creative new strategies to the hiring process. Bauman quickly adds that it’s been beneficial in many ways.
“We found that finding the right candidate is more important than having the right background,” he says. “We can train background, but we can’t train culture, we can’t train attitude, and we can’t make somebody live where they don’t want to live.”
Global Player, Wide Field of Vision
Aqua-Aerobic Systems has expanded over the decades through a combination of organic, innovation-driven growth and strategic mergers. Baumann believes one of the company’s best moves was its acquisition of Mecana, the Swiss producer of cloth media filters.
“Even though we were able to sell that product on our own, they were operating in a number of areas we weren’t operating in, and that exchange has created markets in the United States that we didn’t have before,” says Baumann. “I would say we probably both increased our business 30 or 40 percent on the filtration product by what we learned from each other.”
The collaboration has also empowered both teams with an inter-continental resource for quick-to-market solutions.
“There was a new phosphorous removal requirement that came up in the U.K. and Europe,” says Baumann. “The United States had some phosphorous requirements, and we’d been achieving them for 10 or 12 years by then. So, Mecana instantly had a decade of experience when we brought them our technology. It’s been very successful.”
Aqua-Aerobic has benefitted in its own ways, as it begins importing a stormwater filter concept Mecana has been testing in Germany. The idea is that, during a major downpour, these filters can quickly and economically remove contaminants from water in a storm drain before it’s discharged into a river or lake.
“We would have been more apprehensive about doing stormwater if we hadn’t seen they already conducted tests and did so successfully,” says Baumann. “They haven’t sold many filters yet, but the results of their tests encouraged us to do some testing, and we’ve since rolled it out in the United States.”
This past spring, Aqua-Aerobic purchased a German company, Fuchs Enprotec GmbH, which manufacturers aerators.
“We’d been trying to get a license agreement with them and we couldn’t get it arranged, but then it came up for sale and so we purchased them,” says Baumann.
Perhaps the most significant merger in the company’s history came in 2016 when it was acquired by Japanese firm Metawater, a specialist in water quality and engineering solutions. The firm has long produced ozone devices used for disinfecting drinking water.
“It gives us an entre into the drinking water market,” says Baumann. “Ozone is used extensively in drinking water. We’ve always thought there was a place for our cloth filter there, but it’s difficult to get in with a brand-new product, and the ozone product is well-accepted.”
Pushing to New Markets
Wastewater filtration typically comes in four levels. The first tier is a basic filtration. The second and third tier are most common in the developed world and are standard in Rockford’s treatment system. The fourth tier takes additional measures to make water virtually safe for drinking.
It’s the middle tiers where Aqua-Aerobic has always performed best, says Baumann, but it’s the first and fourth where opportunities are emerging.
“There are usually less-expensive alternatives, at that first stage, than we typically would offer,” says Baumann. “With that being said, we’ve recently developed a product at our Rock River technology center that will work in the first stage rather economically, and we’re seeing some interest in that, both domestically and internationally.”
Places like India present an appealing target for this technology, because many communities there are just beginning to install modern sewage treatment systems.
China, on the other hand, is driving demand for higher-tier products as the population explodes in major metro areas.
“I’ve been going there since 2004, and you can’t believe the transition that’s happened in those 15 years,” says Baumann. “There are towns that you’ve never heard of that have 5, 10 million people.”
The incredible pace of development is pushing the Aqua-Aerobic team to speed up its production times and think through its designs in new ways. For example, the typical water treatment plant in North America might take five to seven years from initial designs to construction and final launch. Typically, there are layers of design and early conversations, bidding processes, votes and approvals, and finally construction.
Once built, an American plant could operate for 20 years before it needs a refurbishing.
In China, nine to 10 months might be a long-term project.
“There are jobs where we bid the project, and before it’s finished and installed, we’re bidding the second expansion,” says Baumann. “There’s one plant I visited to see the startup of the third phase, and the fourth phase is being installed – and they’re already talking about the fifth phase, just because the growth is so high.”
The speediness to delivery has brought along new opportunities for new product development, as well. Bauman estimates the average time from initial introduction of a product to first installation might take three to five years – more in line with a North American production schedule.
It’s already ahead of that schedule on the launch of AquaNereda, a solution for biological wastewater treatment. Licensed from a Dutch company, the product uses concentrated granules to help microorganisms more efficiently process biological waste. It increases a system’s capacity without expanding the footprint.
“You get a lot more biology in a granule,” says Baumann. “These granules are heavy, so they settle faster and you can add more of them into a tank, and you can make them settle faster – which is how you separate them before releasing the clean water.”
Playing into the Future
Baumann is a longtime admirer of the wastewater treatment process. After more than 40 years in the industry, he still finds he’s fascinated by the process of putting dirty water in and getting clean water out.
“I’ve always been interested in water, and I knew I wanted to do something with it, but I didn’t think it was going to be wastewater,” he says. “I thought it was going to be building dams and river straightening, or something like that.”
Where he’s gone is no less important, as his work helps to protect water sources and replenish the world’s supply of potable water. His experience in the field – 20 years in Milwaukee and another 20 here at Aqua-Aerobic, has moved him through the same market trends and innovations that have kept Aqua-Aerobic pushing into the future.
But ask Baumann about his work, and he just gets excited. His passion shines through.
“The tricks we play with microorganisms, to get them to do what we want them to do – it’s amazing,” he says.