• Vendor Interview March 2006

    Ken Weiland of DakenSkys

    15 March 2006

    MyCockpit: Ken, would you give us a little background about yourself, how you got involved in flight simulation, and how Daken-Skys got started?

    Ken: I was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY with both feet on the ground and not a hint of any future in flight in any way. I made my way through an art high school concentrating on ceramics and sculpture and then turned to product design earning a BS in Industrial Design. Up to this point, I had never even set foot in any kind of airplane until my senior year in college, when a friend invited me up in his Cessna.

    Having three years of engineering behind me, with my new found knowledge of strengths of materials, and safety factor numbers swimming in my head, I was a bit reluctant to get into this small tin can and go soaring thousands of feet in the sky. Ok…I'll admit it; I became a white knuckle flyer at that tender age of 21.

    My friend let me take the controls of the Cessna, after some color returned in my cheeks and within minutes, I was making perfect turns and had commend of my destiny. I felt a bit more relaxed knowing that I could actually get used to this, as long as I didn't look down! We eased back towards the airport and slowly descended until about fifty feet off the ground, and my pilot friend offered to take over saying "there's a strong crosswind and I'd prefer to land on our wheels instead of upside down." Well, no argument from me, and I returned the controls to him in a flash.

    Ever since that eventful maiden flight, my feelings for the air have been, shall we say, mixed. I quite enjoyed the feeling of mere weightlessness for brief moments and the feeling of the air vents blowing my hair around, but that's where it stopped short. My next time up in the blue sky was aboard a commercial jetliner that took the bumpiest, shakiest and downright worst flight of my life that left me with my old college remembrances of how frail some engineering structures can be. Needless to say, I practically kissed the ground after that momentous flight.

    I've flown in many commercial jets since those days, and sorry to say, I still grip the arms of the seat upon takeoffs, landings and any little turbulence, although I'm getting a bit used to it now.

    So, where does this lead me to the birth of DakenSkys? Well, for one thing…flight simulation is nice and safe on firm ground, and while I have grown to love any and all aspects of flight, I haven't yet experienced any white knuckles while flying my MSFS from my office chair, although I have broken out in a sweat after landing my 747 on a highway instead of the runway!

    My early days of flight sim involved sitting in front of my computer, keyboard and monochrome monitor and marveled at the single green horizontal line that became a disappearing horizon as I rapidly fingered the arrow keys to rise higher on the top side of that green line. Some years later, and the green line has been replaced with some semblance of actual scenery, and I graduated to a nice plastic joystick. Much better than those darn keyboard keys, but my reflexes still couldn't quite get the hang of it, and my wife kept kidding me all the time, asking me "how many times did you crash today?

    Touchdown! I landed! Well…sort of, but I now had a nicer plastic yoke, and a small single throttle which allowed me to ease down and put my plane just right…ok so it was on the grass, and I couldn't stop in time and slid into the water with a loud "splash". And my wife is chuckling some more in the background.

    There had to be more to this wonderful, safe, on the ground flying hobby, so I began surfing the internet every day looking at any and everything that was flight related. Eventually, I found Avsim and some time later, learned that people were actually building their own cockpits in their basements, garages and even bathrooms. This sounded like a perfect hobby for me, and I started to gather as much information as I could. I found manuals, drawings, electronic schematics and catalogs, but it wasn't until I came across my first purchase on Ebay of an original 727 flight yoke with its full column and wires trailing out the bottom, for $100.

    Now, being a product designer, and engineer and model maker for all my life, I looked at this yoke and said, "gee, I could restore this old piece to it's glory and build my own simulator….or, I could restore it, mold it, and re-engineer it to work better for the flight sim community and sell them for others to be able to enjoy. Well, that's how it all got started, and a friend of mine convinced me to start on making the panels first as he said that this would be the starting point of all control systems. I had this feeling within me of pure excitement, thinking of how to make these parts come to life. How to make them better, less expensive and more affordable so more people could enjoy this hobby while being able to duplicate every little detail.

    As a consultant for some twenty years to the toy industry among others, I incorporated my company with the name of Daken. The first two letters "Da" are for my wife's nickname, Dania, and well, you can guess where the last three letters came from. So, when I turned to consider flight simulation as my passion to pursue, the named just naturally became Daken-Skys.

    19 March 2006

    MyCockpit: What was your expectation when you began to develop this as a business and how would you describe where you are now?

    Ken: A few years ago, when I first thought about the possibility of making flight simulation components, I thought that maybe there were just a handful of people who were actually interested in building their own cockpits. And based on this preconceived notion, I approached this as a mere hobby to be done on the side every so often. If I got just one order that month for a panel, then that would have made me happy and perhaps another panel the next month.

    Over time, I came to realize that this hobby was much more widespread than I had imagined. I started getting e-mails from people that were in California…then Florida and soon from people in Europe, Asia, South America and other countries I hadn't even heard of. The most interesting and rewarding part of this business has become the contacts with people…friends, from around the world. I enjoy hearing from people from all walks of life, and becoming a part of their world as they embark on their journey to build their simulator. I especially like getting an e-mail from someone who has just received some of my panels and to read how impressed they are with the work that I put into these products. One customer wrote that when he opened the box "It was like having a second Christmas today" and it is this very sentiment that has brought tears of joy to my eyes.

    My family understands how passionate I get with my work, and perhaps it has become a matter of pride for me to do the best work so that others can enjoy my products. I do admit that sometimes…ok, all the time… I can be a perfectionist at what I do. When I first started making the original panels, I must have gone through four sheets of polycarbonate in trying to achieve the right look and feel. Well, four sheets is 128 square feet and at over $9 a square foot, that adds up fast for something that wound up in the garbage anyway.

    When I started out, some years ago, I would find a few hours in the evening to do some testing and bread boarding and then continue a few days later. But, lately it has consumed much more of my time and I almost can't go more than a few hours without thinking of another challenge. Although I'm awake at 6 AM, getting the kids off to school, I'm usually at my computer or in the shop at 7:47AM. You like how that time just happened to work out right all you Boeing people! Sorry, at 7:37 I'm just getting back from the school bus stop, and there is no 7:77AM anyway. I'm usually there until 11 at night with only a few breaks in the day to eat, and take care of some engineering consulting that still needs to get done to help pay the bills. So, where am I right now in the infancy of DakenSkys? I believe that I am at the dawn of some very interesting challenges and new projects coming up in the next few months. Work on panels is continuing and newer systems are being implemented to aid in this development with the focus on being able to bring out products in a more timely manner. In the past, the tedious task of determining the proper location of the lights in the panel was a long and painful experimentation process, hence the use of a lot of materials that were only discarded. Now, I have developed a system that will be able to pinpoint the best location of these lights on a grid like machine, thereby shortening the process and not wasting any panels in arriving at the results.

    Development of new parts is also being updated using the most advanced technology in today's world. Just a few years ago, to develop a part meant time to draw the different views of the component on 2D CAD and then to build it in the machine shop. If it wasn't correct, then as they say in the business, it was "back to the drawing board". Now, parts are "modeled" in 3D CAD systems that allow you to view the part in all angles, and to run software checks to determine if problems will exist before making an actual sample. And in terms of real samples, this has also evolved from the machine shop days of running a milling machine to sending the 3D CAD file to a company who will make an SLA model overnight. This technology involves a laser to "build" the 3D part with amazing accuracy and speed.

    And…panels aren't our only product that we are currently working on, as you will see in the near future some of the other exciting plans…but oops…that is the next question coming up and I don't want to get ahead of myself.

    And for those who are wondering what that panel is in the photo…it is a Flaps control for the Airbus A340 which will be offered soon, complete with working controls and custom molded knobs.

    27 March 2006

    MyCockpit: How would you describe your target audience or customer? Has this evolved or changed over the years - where do you see it going?

    Ken: I have always viewed my customers as if they were my next door neighbor, even if they live half way around the world. When I lived in Hong Kong, we made many new friends there and became especially close to our next door neighbors from Malaysia who also had children the same ages as ours. Now, some fifteen years later, we are still best friends and very close, perhaps not physically. I feel this way about each and every customer of DakenSkys. Perhaps people will be too critical of me for not approaching my customers in a strict business sense…but those who have been e-mailing me will attest to the fact that I think of them as more than just customers. They are my "extended family" and as such are growing every week.

    My target audience has been from the start, the home hobbyist who yearns to create a cockpit in his basement and is looking to assemble all the parts and pieces over a period of time from weeks to sometimes, many years. Based on this long build time, I don't think of just selling a few parts here and there, but rather becoming a part of the total experience.

    We are all in a learning curve, as components get designed and engineered and assembled. I amaze myself all the time at how much I am absorbing from all my friends as they are constantly e-mailing information to me about the technical requirements needed for their simulator. I will never profess to "know it all" and it isn't my intention to force technology upon anyone, but would rather evolve as a company who is growing with the newness of this extraordinary hobby.

    I have seen many changes happening over the years and as newer advances in technology trickle into the realm of flight simulation, I see the future as only getting brighter. Having a background in design and innovation, I enjoy discovering new techniques and advances and will always try to create a better and less expensive answer for new products.

    From my perspective since opening our doors of DakenSkys, I see some very distinct groups of customers who have different requirements. There are those who would prefer to purchase one panel at a time, and work with that until completed. Then there are those who want sections of panels all at once. Some have voiced their opinions about wanting a complete solution, with everything installed and ready to go.

    There are some who only want the pilot side of the cockpit, for varied reasons from minimizing cost to just not being able to fit it into their tiny cramped apartment. Then there are those who want a 2/3 type of cockpit. They prefer to have the pilot side as well as most of the center areas of the cockpit, and finally you have the entire cockpit for those who want their co-pilot in there with them.

    There will always be a demand for all of these very different scenarios and I intend to be able to support all of them in the future. Over the years and more recently, in the past few months, I have been approached by some individuals as well as some companies to quote on some very large simulator projects, so I can definitely say that the customer base is a constantly changing factor.

    As my roots are and will always be geared toward the small private builder, I will be addressing many new areas of simulator components. Some of these future projects will involve full working controls such as yokes, auto throttles, HUD displays, and framing systems to hold the panels that we will be forging ahead with. One concern with developing the framing systems is the portability as well as the expansion. We realize that people have different needs over time, and that the possibility to have to disassemble their cockpit and move it to another location is a viable problem. We also need to address the modularity and expandability for those who may only want a pilot's side, but then in a year or two, may have the urge to add on.

    To further sum up what I think the future holds, I believe that there are many people all over the world who are looking for a very realistic complete plug and play simulator. These are people who lack the knowledge, patience and expertise to be able to assemble a full working cockpit on their own, and to be able to purchase "modules" and simply plug them in and fly will satisfy a large segment of the sim community. This area is of great interest to me, and to be able to create affordable answers to this segment of the market can only strengthen the future of cockpit building and enjoyment to a larger audience.

    30 March 2006

    MyCockpit: What is the most challenging aspect of running this business?

    Ken: There are actually many challenging aspects about this business, and I'll touch on a few of them starting with what I consider the most important one first.

    In real estate, you've no doubt heard the saying, "location, location, location". Well, I have my own version of that and it's "Information, information, information". Up until just a few years ago, it was a relatively simple matter to just walk up to the flight deck of any airplane that you happen to be on, and ask to take some pictures, or ask a few questions. Well, we all know that recently, it has become almost an impossibility to even suggest sneaking a peek "up front" without raising some eyebrows and getting the once over look from the flight attendant.

    I can remember some early flights where I was not only greeted with enthusiasm by the pilot who was willing to chat at long lengths, but on one particular flight to London, actually got to sit in the First Officer's seat, while the plane was cruising into a beautiful sunrise. I recall the pilot taking about an hour to explain all the features of the instruments, and we had some really great conversations up until time to descend.

    Now, the world has been plunged into the realm of non-informational distrust and suspicion, and what was once a friendly exchange is now perhaps a fleeting glimpse as you are hurriedly escorted off the plane upon landing.

    I tried to first start gathering information about parts and panels from some flight deck posters that I had purchased. I would probably have had more completed panels by now if I hadn't been so darn fussy about verifying that my information was correct. It wasn't! Unfortunately, I was loaned a real 747 MCP panel which I took a million measurements from, and then attempted to scale the drawings on the poster. Oh my…what a mess that became, and I found that some panels were about one inch too long or short. Well, even one tenth of an inch would have bothered me, so those posters became just simple wall decorations, and nothing more. My thirst for information over the years has never been more challenging even up to this very day, as I try to discover what is the correct dimension, shape or color. I will be forever grateful to a few diehard flight simmers who have offered their informational services and guidance in the quest for the best products to offer.

    A close second for the title of challenging aspects would be the innovative methods needed to pull together a product that is the most realistic while being affordable to the sim community. I guess I could take the easy path, and be able to push more product out the door at a faster rate, if I just purchased that expensive encoder, or switch off the shelf of the local electronics store, but that's not challenging to me. While being a perfectionist at whatever I make, I'm also a stickler for the utmost detail, and if that means spending literally hours on the internet, or pouring through my library of catalogs just to find the right part at the absolutely best price, then that's what it takes to make a DakenSkys part. And…if I can't find the very part that I need…I figure out a way how to make it myself. There are so many talented flight sim enthusiasts who have crafted some wonderful components for their own project, so I'm sure they appreciate the extensive time that it takes to create their masterpieces. Realize one additional factor in that most people make one-of-a-kind parts, and can spend literally hours, weeks and more on perfecting just one little part. On the other hand, I need to develop the way to make parts with just as much detail, craftsmanship and care, but to be able to make them in a fraction of that development time. The innovative challenge for me then, is to come up with new creative methods for automating a process while not sacrificing the quality or workmanship. For too many years, involved in the design, costing and production of toys and other consumer products, I have seen how companies in order to keep the price down, have compromised the quality and functionality beyond the point of what makes a good product.

    Having spent years fighting with large companies to put back some of the excitement into their product, I have come away with my current outlook on business and what customers ultimately want. I have seen some wonderful toys, with so much play value for children get changed from a quality plastic component to a cheap printed cardboard, and all the sophisticated electronics scrapped just to satisfy a lower price and be left with a worthless item that will be abandoned in a few minutes.

    So, my world of thankless designing and engineering for the unseen consumer toy market has become my current most challenging and ultimately rewarding job in the realm of flight simulation where I get to converse, e-mail and appreciate each and every person that I have the pleasure of knowing and providing one of my products.

    5 April 2006

    MyCockpit: You are a family man, how do you handle the great amount of time needed for Daken-Skys and giving the family the time they deserve?

    Ken: You mentioned the magic word…"Time". For so many of us, whether we are starting a business, running one for many years, or for those just thinking about it, "time" is the one factor that becomes the most crucial and demanding part of any venture. Sometimes I think back to the days when I had a job, working for another company, and how my time was spent every day. You wake up, get ready for work, spend your eight or so hours and then on your way home again…so time for dinner, kids, hobbies etc.

    Well, scratch that thought when you are in your own business! My day starts off at around five in the morning, just waking and thinking about what the day has in store. Then my two kids have to be given a bit of a nudge to get ready for school. Breakfast is prepared by my wife with me getting the coffee ready. Then it's off to the car to bring the kids to the bus stop. Back home again in time to finish breakfast with my wife until she is ready to head out to work. By this time it's around 7:45 AM and I'm heading down to the office and shop, so by the time I arrive at my long commute down my steps, the time is 7:47 …and as I mentioned earlier in this interview, it just worked out this way, so my apologies to those 737 simmers.

    Now, it's time to check any e-mails that came in overnight from people in different time zones, including some of my consulting contacts in Hong Kong. The day gets filled up very quickly with tons of research needed for new items, products that need to be made, (all by hand, one by one) and a few thousand other matters.

    Then it's time again at 2:30 to pick up my kids and get them settled in doing their school homework, and other projects. Unless one of them needs to be driven to an after school activity, or a friends house, I'm back working again in the shop or office. The office is an adequate space for my three computers, my library of catalogs and books as well as the Laser Engraver, which needs the clean controlled atmosphere of an office environment. About twenty feet away is the shop, which contains all the machinery needed to make any of the products. First is the cnc machine which was first shown in an earlier photo, then there are milling machines, lathes, saws, a vacuum forming machine and injection molder. In addition to these rather large pieces of equipment, there is a full paint spray booth and some highly specialized and proprietary equipment.

    Now to continue with the time…at about 5PM it becomes time to start preparing the dinner, which my wife then helps out when she arrives. After a quick bite to eat, it's time to help with any lingering homework and studies that need to be done. And many times I'm called on for extra-curricular activities such as mentoring and teaching robotics at my son's school where he is a member of the robotic team. And not forgetting my daughter who seems to always have other projects for me, like building scenery and props for her drama class and shows. Somewhere in between all this, I have some moments to actually get a few words back and forth with my wife. Finally it's about 10PM, and the kids are about finished with their work, my wife is watching the nightly news, and me…I'm back in the shop again until around 11:00 or a bit after when I'm ready to collapse.

    So, as you can see the day gets pretty well filled up with the daily responsibilities between the business and the family. When the need arises, and the work gets a bit backed up, the whole family pitches in to get everything milled, painted and wrapped up.
    Between all of us, we can handle the small jobs or the huge projects. At one time we were faced with having to do some finishing work to 7000 collector teddy bears and because no other factory could possibly handle this project in such a short time, we took on the project. In only four days we were able to get them all finished in time to be sold on a network TV show.

    Some other businesses may have a larger space, or many employees to help out, but in a way, this "family" involvement has always been a way of life for all of us and I feel that it has kept us busy and above all, a very close family business, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

    DakenSkys, NJ 07836, USA
    Ken Weiland
    DakenSkys is a Division of Daken LLC © 2003 All Rights Reserved