Farnborough Air Show

For Smiths, risk pays off with $16 billion worth of business

 - November 15, 2006, 9:56 AM

The need for tier-one aerospace suppliers to assume systems integration roles in major programs is viewed as conventional wisdom, but five years ago when Smiths (Chalet P1-5) started making this move it was not a decision to be taken lightly. According to Smiths Aerospace president Dr. John Ferrie, the leap up the supply chain has meant substantial extra investment, with $200 million to be plowed into new programs this year alone. But for the UK-based group, taking on greater risk has paid off with systems integration work having brought in some $16 billion in new business over the past five years.

“It has been a challenge taking on full system commitments and developing capability for customer solutions,” Ferrie told Aviation International News. “But there is real value in putting things together.”

As a systems integrator on new airliners like the Boeing 787 and the Airbus A380, Smiths has been applying its expertise to tap the trend for more electrical power and digital controls in aircraft. On the 787, for example, Smiths has developed a common-core computing system in which its software allocates memory and processing capacity as required by the myriad aircraft functions–rationalizing a process that in the past has required separate computers for each function.

Mechanics isn’t a lost art for Smiths, but the company has made these systems more reliable and efficient by the application of electrical and digital technology. Prime examples of this are the in-flight refueling system Smiths is developing for Boeing’s new-generation 767-based military tanker and the thrust actuation system Boeing committed to in May for the 747-8 widebody. The thrust actuation package will be designed and manufactured at Smiths’ Los Angeles facility. It is to deliver the first development hardware to Boeing in the second quarter of next year.
“Mechanical motive power is now more electric than hydraulic,” explained Ferrie, “and controls generally use more digital electrical valves than hydraulic valves.”

Shouldering systems integration responsibility has given Smiths the opportunity to work directly with OEMs to optimize systems architecture from the earliest stages of aircraft definition, rather than having to fit its equipment into a predefined layout as it did when it served as a simple supplier. For instance, its electrical distribution systems now integrate primary and secondary power distribution with load management and starter capability to switch power to where it is needed in the aircraft and provide a better energy balance throughout the various systems.

Part of Smiths’ rise as a systems integrator has seen it expand rapidly in the engine-components sector. For example, it has provided the combustion chamber for General Electric’s new GEnx turbofan and rotating components for the Rolls-Royce Trent 1000.

Better Value Support

In an environment where inflated oil prices weigh heavily on airlines and the military faces a continued struggle with budget constraints, Ferrie said his customers want increasingly better value in the aftermarket to get lifetime support for their equipment. Increasingly, this means long-term maintenance, repair and overhaul agreements and performance-based support whereby operators are guaranteed to have equipment available for service. For firms such as Smiths, this also means more investment and management time to ensure that these no-quibble commitments can be met.

Market price pressure has also prompted Smiths to expand fabrication operations into lower cost economies such as China and Poland. It is increasingly buying hardware from new supplier sources such as India.

“Smiths is a long-term business and you will be a player only if you are at the front end [of programs], and to do this you need to invest,” concluded Ferrie. “Frankly, it would have been an easier decision not to make this investment, but by 2015 most of what we live by today will no longer be in production, so you just can’t stand still.”