Farnborough Air Show

GKN aims to double annual sales by 2017

 - July 2, 2008, 11:34 AM

GKN Aerospace is targeting $4 billion in annual sales by 2017, double its current level, and the UK-based group has already won much of the business it needs to achieve that total.

The company has achieved most of its dramatic growth to date–from sales of just $150 million in 1994 when GKN acquired the former Westland Aerospace to $2 billion today–through acquisitions, but going forward more of it will be organic.

“What we do is target platforms and look at trying to achieve a level of revenue per platform,” explained chief executive Marcus Bryson. And looking at 2017 he can point to an estimated $1.3 billion in incremental business it has already won on production programs that are only just getting into their stride.

The figure is based on conservative production estimates for a diverse range of programs–10 Boeing 787s a month, for example, where the U.S. airframer actually is aiming for 40. Leading the way is the new Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter, where GKN’s contribution is worth $2.6 million per shipset, or a potential $486 million per year.

Each 787, too, will earn the company $2.7 million. Other money-spinners include the Airbus A350 and A380 and Boeing 747-8 airliners, the Sikorsky CH-53K military helicopter, the Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor and nacelles for the Honeywell AS907 business jet engine.

Still to be won, though, is the biggest prize of all: a stake in the next-generation single-aisle (NGSA) aircraft. The current Airbus A320 and Boeing 737 families have sold well over 10,000 copies between them, so everybody wants to be part of their successors. And GKN’s competitors these days are the likes of Alenia Aeronautica, Vought Aircraft Industries and Spirit AeroSystems.

GKN (Chalet G1-3) actually has a minimal stake in the existing single-aisle programs, Bryson pointed out, so any business it wins will be incremental. “Our intention is to look at our ability to get our product on that aircraft, ranging from wing components to windows, engine components and de-icing systems. We’ve got a fairly broad portfolio of products that we can use to target either the prime itself or the engine prime or some of the systems people.”

The Airbus contender is likely to be the more valuable of the two to GKN, which has been negotiating to take over part of the Airbus site at Filton where the airframer makes its wings. That would include the introduction of facilities for making the A350’s composite wing spar, a move Bryson sees as “a stepping-stone to NGSA.”

There is less likelihood of Boeing taking wing design and manufacture away from Japan, but “maybe we could do some components for the Japanese this time around,” Bryson said.

Single-Aisle Upgrades
There are other opportunities, as well, such as modular floor structures and an upgrade of the electrical de-icing system introduced on the 787. “We’re in discussions with Boeing now about what they would need if they went with electrical de-icing again on the single-aisle. So we’re looking at upgrading our technology that’s on the 787 to a new, better, lighter, less power-hungry system.”

GKN would also target the engine manufacturers, Bryson said. The company recently formed a joint venture with Rolls-Royce to research and develop the use of composite materials in aero engine fan blades. It will build on composite blade work carried out under the European Union-funded Vital composite fan blade research program.

Bryson also sees signs of a change in attitude on the part of the UK government, which industry has often criticized for a limp attitude to backing the country’s research-and-development efforts. “They’ve been very supportive around us with the A350 and the Filton acquisition because they recognize that the long-term game is going to be NGSA,” he remarked. “In the UK, the support and launch aid has all tended to get gobbled up by Airbus and Rolls-Royce; this time it may be a little bit different. They recognize that’s not a good strategy and they need to help other people.”

In the past, he said, the Department for Trade and Industry (and now its successor, the Department for Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform [BERR]), tended to focus purely on Airbus. “What we’ve tried to do is lift their sights a bit and say, ‘Look, there’s a whole raft of other market opportunities out there that the UK can latch onto. Airbus is not the only game in town. And we’ve had really good active support from ministers and civil servants in BERR in the last six months. They’re buying into our strategy and they see that it’s beneficial to UK plc.”

Along with European programs such as Vital and the Awiator wing technology effort, said Frank Bamford, senior vice president business development and strategy, support has also come from regional bodies such as the South East Economic Development Agency (SEEDA), which supported the creation of GKN’s Advanced Composites Facility on the Isle of Wight. “You can directly correlate that to business success,” he said. “The technology we’ve developed through programs like Awiator and with the help of SEEDA led directly to the winglet program with Aviation Partners Boeing.”

That program, under which GKN designed blended winglets for the Boeing 767-300ER, and is building them for both that airplane and the 737-300/500 under contract to Aviation Partners Boeing, “is going to be worth $150- to $200 million as we go forward. I think people are waking up to the fact that there are other ways of generating economic benefit in the aerospace industry in the UK.”

Composite technology, as used for the winglets, has not yet achieved its full impact, GKN believes. Bamford said composite structures have replaced metal to some extent, “but composite parts are still designed as replacements. So composites have had huge success without the aircraft design being changed to suit them. The next generation will be high speed, low labor and no autoclaves. The NGSA will be the first aircraft to really exploit
the manufacturing as well as the materials properties of carbon.”

Automation, specifically automated fiber placement and automated tape laying, is the key to unlocking that potential, said senior technical director and chief technologist Phil Grainger. “The more automation we have in the process the more competitive we are. It doesn’t get over the exchange rate, but it cuts labor costs. Low cost doesn’t have to mean a developing country.”

Composites really lend themselves to mass manufacturing Grainger said, citing the example of the composite fan case GKN makes for the General Electric GEnx engine.
“The lead time for a metal fan case is about six months from order to delivery. The lead time to make a composite case from taking the material out of the freezer to delivery is just five days. You take it out, thaw it, wrap it, there are two small areas of machining and it’s done.”

GKN is funding manufacturers’ development of automatic fiber placement machines, and hopes they will have come up with one of the fastest machines in the world by the end of this year.

“We’re at a crossroads,” added Grainger. “Whoever launches NGSA knows it has to be an order of magnitude better than what we have now. I think somebody will reach a very brave decision and we’ll be looking at aircraft designed and built in ways that are unlike anything we’ve seen before.”