It’s a bird! No! It’s a plane!. . .
December 17, 2007
Ron Marston suspects his company, Marston PteroWorks, is on the verge of becoming something quite a bit bigger than the part-time job and enjoyable waste of time it’s been for 10 years.
The problem? He’s not sure how he feels about the potential growth.
Marston, who works fulltime as a graphics teacher at Truckee Meadows Community College, has been developing a worldwide name for himself as a designer of radio-controlled, electric-powered model aircraft.
Unlike their noisy and sometimes messy gas-powered brethren, the electric aircraft Marston creates rely on new developments in battery and electric motor technology to fly quietly. As a result, their popularity has grown rapidly in the past couple of years.
Marston PteroWorks’ signature products are pterodactyls, silently cruising craft modeled on the flying lizards who populated the skies 150 million years ago.
A few weeks ago, the company rolled out the Marston Pterodactyl with a 52-inch wingspan. The kit priced at $115 takes aficionados 30 to 40 hours to build.
Recommended Stories For You
It’s intended, Marston says, to be more accessible than an earlier version with an 80-inch wingspan. Some particularly meticulous hobbyists devoted as much as a year to construction of that kit.
The company also sells kits for traditional radio-controlled airplanes, built both from balsa wood and from foam, but Marson’s heart is with the pterodactyls.
“There are enough traditional airplanes out there,” he says.
Marston PteroWorks is a one-man operation, as much as passion for its owner as a business.
Marston designs the aircraft in Adobe Illustrator thinking all the way how the parts would work as part of a kit builds prototypes, takes the prototypes out for test flights and test crashes, then borrows time on computer numerical control equipment owned by a friend a couple of evenings a month to cut the kits to fill orders.
“I’m making a profit at it, but it’s not much,” he says.
Orders trickle in. For his biggest aircraft, Marston expects to sell about 10 kits a year. Smaller and less-expensive kits that take hobbyists only an evening or two to assemble sell better.
International orders mostly to Europe and Australia account for nearly half the company’s orders.
With the growing popularity of electric-powered radio-controlled aircraft as well as the exposure that Marston’s craft is getting in magazines for hobbyists, the relatively quiet days may be nearing an end for Marston PteroWorks.
“I hope I’m on the verge of being discovered here,” he says. “But I don’t want to be big.”
Among the biggest questions he faces is whether to move beyond kits and begin marketing fully assembled, ready-to-fly planes.
Marston has been in talks with manufacturers about a move in that direction, a step that’s more than merely a business decision.
“The most rewarding and satisfying projects I’ve worked on have been ones I built myself,” he tells potential customers on his company’s Web site, http://www.pteroworks.com.
“A bond is created between the airframe and its owner during the creation process.”
Marston worries, too, that mass production might lead to more products created with easy-to-build foam rather than wood another troubling prospect for the purist.
“The wooden planes have a look, a feel and a quality that you just can’t get in any other material,” he says. “Nothing is as elegant as a well-designed wood airframe.”