GKN Sharpens Its Technology Edge To Drive Aerostructures Leadership

Farnborough Air Show » 2012
July 9, 2012, 2:00 AM

Last month’s breakthrough in winning a contract to supply Boeing with complex machined titanium and aluminum parts and assemblies for the horizontal stabilizer of the new 787-9 Dreamliner widebody is the prime example of GKN Aerospace’s recent success in keeping its backlog buoyant. The UK-based group has also sought to maintain a healthy balance between civil and military work, as evidenced by its commencing manufacture of titanium structures for Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Lightning II fighter at its main factory at Filton near Bristol in May.

At a press briefing several weeks ahead of the 2012 Farnborough International Airshow, Marcus Bryson, president and CEO of GKN Aerospace, told reporters that “all four divisions of GKN are at or near record profits” and sales are up 13 percent, to £6 billion, of which aerospace accounts for around 24 percent. He said its strategic move into more civil programs at a time when defense spending is squeezed has paid off so far.

GKN has seven key product families: flying surfaces, nacelles and pylons, engine structures, engine “rotatives,” transparencies and coatings, plus protection systems. Geographically, the company is still “dominated by Europe, at 47 percent,” said Bryson, although it hopes to exploit new aircraft program opportunities in emerging markets.

Priorities for the business are “safety, technology and customers,” said Bryson, who has also “deliberately” tried to make the work “very extensive and diverse.” He pointed to Dassault Aviation and Bell Helicopter as examples of new Blue Chip OEM clients added in the previous 12 months.

The company’s core activities at present are the design and manufacture of structural components for large commercial aircraft (primarily the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350XWB) and military aircraft, such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. “We have a strong order book,” said Bryson, “and this is pretty well underpinned by the strong order book of the primes.”

Mike McCann, senior v-p business development and strategy, said that GKN’s Filton facility had seen work for three new customers: Dassault (structure for its proposed new super-midsized aircraft), Bombardier (CSeries control surfaces) and on Lockheed Martin’s F-35 fighter. GKN also collaborates closely with companies such as Wichita-based Spirit Aerosystems (work on the 787-9 for the section 41 floor assembly) and Triumph, which GKN also uses as a supplier for various items, such as F-15 sheet metal.

Five years ago the company’s main focus was “mainly military,” but this has shifted “from around 58 percent to around 42 percent now,” said Bryson. “Three to four years from now, 70 percent will be civil.”

Specialization in Aero Engines

GKN also has established a strong specialization in aero engines; for example, supplying titanium honeycomb inner core fairings to Rolls-Royce (see box). According to Bryson, the company won this contract by offering niche technology, “which was unique because it replaced a piece of composite.” It also has taken to partnering with aircraft and engine manufacturers to be more than just an ordinary tier-one supplier. “I think of us as ‘super tier one,’” he added.

Content on some airframe platforms is very significant–led by the A380 with $8 million per shipset and C-17 with $7 million. This makes it worthwhile for GKN to have its own team partly integrated with the OEM client and the customer’s manufacturing plant.

The 787 is currently ramping up in terms of production rates and Bryson commented that, “once it hits $8- to $10 million that’ll have quite a significant effect on our business.” Looking to the future, China’s Comac C919 is one of the new airliner programs with which GKN wants to be involved. “We are working hard with Comac to form a joint venture,” said Bryson.

GKN is always eager to exploit potential technological edges, and new civil aircraft programs that are racing to drive operating costs down are perfect outlets for such ambitions.

According to technology director Rich Oldfield, there are plenty of opportunities for GKN to demonstrate its technological prowess, such as further developments of the 787 family, the A350XWB program, the new A320neo narrowbody, enhancements to the A380, as well as Boeing 737 MAX and the proposed 777X. He also cited Embraer and Mitsubishi as examples of originators of new platforms requiring technology differentiators. “We are preparing for a step-change with the next-generation narrowbodies,” he said. “We need to prepare now, especially if it includes ‘disruptive technologies.’”

Bryson said that having technology is the key to sustainable business yields and to create such technology the company has trebled research spending over the past two years. One new technology Oldfield highlighted is “waffle skin” for winglets, and another is microwave curing for composites. “We try to position ourselves at the higher end of complexity,” said Bryson, “as if you don’t have the technology, there is huge pressure to commoditize what we do… we get primes coming to us, recognizing we have something they don’t have and they want access to. Pratt & Whitney is a recent example.”

On the military side, the company remains committed and has “created a legal structure in the U.S. that enables us to play in bigger, newer programs, including ‘black’ programs.” The military program opportunities listed by Bryson in his presentation include heavy-lift assault/transport rotorcraft (CH-53K), the NewGen (T-X) trainer, UCLASS carrier-based UAV, Armed Aerial/Joint Multirole Helicopter and a mooted long-range strike mission aircraft. However, McCann said that with so many new programs being delayed for budgetary reasons, the emphasis would be on upgrades. “[For example], JSF moving to the right means more F-18s and we do $3 million on each aircraft,” he concluded. “We will look carefully at which aircraft are likely to have longevity.”

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