Fly away success

While the big players make headline news by developing faster, more fuel-efficient engines and advanced systems, it is all too easy to overlook smaller firms who play a vital role. Stuart Nathan puts the record straight.

The aerospace industry may seem to be dominated by a few major players, but the sector supports many hundreds of smaller companies, all of whom have to contend with the twin drivers of rapid technological innovation and international competition — which will be reflected at Farnborough (17-23 July).

The regional aerospace alliances provide vital services for the SMEs in the sector, helping to connect them to the large civil and military aircraft manufacturers, while also reinforcing links to academia.

Paul Lindsay, operations director for the Aerospace Wales alliance, is currently focusing on identifying the strengths and weaknesses of the region. ‘We’ve just completed mapping a capabilities matrix for the 160 companies we have in the region, and next we’re going to start on a skills matrix covering all the universities and institutes of higher education,’ he said.

The goal of the exercise is both to ensure that any skills gaps are identified, and to help companies in the region publicise themselves. ‘We know, for example, that we’re short of expertise in composites at the moment. Tomorrow’s aircraft are going to be built from composites, so it’s important we try to fill that gap,’ said Lindsay.

Equally important is the capabilities matrix, the results of which will become a feature on the Aerospace Wales website. ‘The companies will be able to update their entries themselves, which gives them a degree of control,’ said Lindsay. ‘The idea is that if anyone is looking for a particular service, they’ll be able to find expertise quickly and easily.’

Aerospace Wales‘ Farnborough stand is showcasing eight of the region’s companies, including electronics assembler and integrator TTems; Babcock Defence Services; and castings specialist Tritech Precision Products.

‘We have major companies in our region, including Airbus and General Electric, but it’s important that we emphasise the smaller players as well,’ said Lindsay. ‘We’re hoping that our stand represents a message from the Welsh Assembly, government and the industry of the region’s capabilities.’

Among the region’s companies is Bridgend’s Spectrum Technologies which, despite its small size, has recently chalked up its third Queen’s Award for Enterprise. The award recognises the company’s ultraviolet laser-based wire marking and processing equipment, used in the production of the hundreds of miles of electrical wiring needed in aircraft manufacture — the Airbus A380 has over 300 miles of wiring, for example, while even the older Boeing 747 has over 180.

Spectrum’s CAPRIS UV laser marker is used in the early stages of aircraft assembly, giving each wire an alpha-numeric code so that it can be identified and tracked through the aircraft structure. Typically, aircraft wires are insulated with Teflon, making them impossible to mark with ink; UV laser marking provides a permanent alternative.

‘For a company our size to win the Queen’s Award on three occasions is exceptional — I believe we are the only SME in Wales to have achieved this,’ said Spectrum’s chairman Peter Dickinson.

Another small firm experiencing high hopes for the sector is Midlands-based Exel Computer Systems, whose EFACS E/8 enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, showing at Farnborough, aims to help airlines reduce maintenance and service costs.

The current trend in the sector is for airlines to pay OEMs for the hours their equipment is in service, rather than buying the equipment outright — which makes it important for the OEMs to be able to return equipment sent back for maintenance, repair or overhaul (MRO), whether in their own facilities or at a repair shop, as soon as possible.

Currently, according to Exel, most ERP systems cannot handle the receipt of units which have already been manufactured without a great deal of additional administration. In particular, there is a danger that the systems will become confused between new (freshly-manufactured) items and the units being maintained.

EFACS E/8 is designed specifically for MRO work, which prevents confusion in stock systems where new and old items may be in the warehouse at the same time.

A particular feature of the system is that it allows the company to know the full history of any unit, whether it is held at the company’s main facility, at a specialist MRO shop, or at a subcontractor carrying out MRO work.

Each of these shops would have its own MRO system, linking in both to the individual businesses ERP systems — which could be from third parties — and to a central MRO system on a separate server to collate and handle all the data from the satellite systems.

In the major companies area, one of the largest, BAE Systems, has several innovations on show at Farnborough. Testing has just been completed on the latest part of the Eurofighter Typhoon project — the pilot’s helmet — which forms an integral part of the weapons targeting system. The company is also keen to promote its progress on Network Enabled Capability (NEC), which aims to link command centres and front-line troops with data from equipment such as unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) and satellites.

The Typhoon helmet interfaces with the onboard computer systems, allowing the pilot to direct sensors and weapons to where there are needed simply by turning his head. This action could cue a missile, lock on a sensor to a pursuing enemy aircraft, or inidicate a point on the ground to a wingman.

‘In addition to all the usual safety protection, pilots will now have a state-of-the-art tracking system, some very hi-tech electronics, a projection system and even a night-vision camera,’ said Mark Bowman, BAE Systems Typhoon project pilot.

The NEC system, which has been developed by BAE’s Advanced Technology Centre (ATC) in collaboration with Ericsson Microwave Systems of Sweden and Ericsson Denmark-Telebit, aims to combine survelliance equipment, UAVs and other autonomous vehicles and people into ‘intelligent information networks’. This, the partners claim, will improve the efficiency of military operations.

‘The main success has been bringing different technologies together using a common communications architecture,’ said Alan Cullen, who led the ATC demonstration. ‘It was especially useful when incorporating elements such as the robot vehicle, which was originally built for exploring volcanoes.’