Columbus-based firm evaluates product failure and offers ideas for lowering future risk.

Columbus-based firm evaluates product failure and offers ideas for lowering future risk.

Drivers on the North Outerbelt probably have seen the sprawling campus that is S-E-A's new headquarters, sitting on a 48-acre site near the large Anheuser-Busch brewery. One thing they might not realize: likely the car they're driving was lab tested for rollover resistance by S-E-A.

The company specializes in revealing the cause of failures and evaluating products to mitigate risks. A slide on its website says it all: "Because the guys that designed the Hindenburg, the Titanic and the Edsel all thought they had nailed it, too."

"We started as a failure analysis company, post-incident investigation, and over the course of time we had clients come to us and say: Can you help us mitigate the risk? Can you help us reduce the chance of incidents?" says Jason Baker, S-E-A's CEO.

S-E-A covers a wide variety of fields including fire investigations, accident reconstructions, boat maneuverability evaluations, candle flammability evaluations, vehicle evaluations and construction accident investigations. S-E-A is named for its work: scientific expert analysis.

Among clients from across the country are law firms, public safety agencies, insurance companies, auto companies and the federal government, Baker says.

Much of the work is confidential, explaining why you may have never heard of S-E-A, even though it's been around for decades. "A lot of the incidents you see on TV, on the nightly news, we're involved in some way or another. Whether it's identifying blame or perhaps helping someone who has been incorrectly blamed to exonerate themselves or their company," Baker says.

The company, founded in 1970 in Columbus, has since expanded into 10 more offices nationwide. Some of those offices offer specialized services, such as in Florida, where its experts can evaluate hurricane damage.

"It's top-notch engineering services. We set ourselves apart by doing that correctly and taking pride in doing that correctly," says Gary Heydinger, S-E-A's director of vehicle dynamics.

In April, S-E-A moved into a state-of-the-art 100,000-square-foot headquarters, just across the highway from its old offices. "We were just running out of room, and our plan to grow the company was limited by our space," says Heydinger.

Inside the gleaming building, the company's experts are busy in the myriad labs and testing facilities the new campus offers: a warehouse-like room full of burning candles, a vehicle inertia measurement facility, a test track and sled with an overcoat-wearing dummy. Out back, there is a 300-foot-wide asphalt test lot with concentric painted circles on which vehicles can be tested for rollover resistance.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration contracts with S-E-A. to help evaluate the rollover resistance of all new vehicles, "so literally every vehicle that's been built since 2001 that's been driven in the United States has been on our machine out back," says Heydinger.

S-E-A designs its own test equipment, which has been sold to automakers, and even the US Army for its Tank Automotive Command in Michigan.

The company designed robots that can drive vehicles on its testing lot. "The mechanical systems, and the gears, the motors, the outriggers, everything we designed," Heydinger says.

Mark-Tami Hotta, CEO of Transportation Research Center Inc. in East Liberty, says he values S-E-A's analytic capabilities. TRC is an independent automotive proving ground with 4,500 acres of land for testing vehicles. Some of its test equipment is from S-E-A.

TRC hopes to increase collaboration with S-E-A, especially now that Columbus has won the US Department of Transportation's Smart City grant. With the new headquarters now open for business, S-E-A envisions a prosperous future. "We had a lot of energy before, but we certainly are reenergized," Heydinger says.

Kevin Kidder is a freelance writer.