Paris Air Show

GKN sees new horizons at Filton

 - June 9, 2009, 4:47 AM

Market conditions have hardly been kind to aerospace these past six months or so, but when a company is celebrating its 250th birthday–as GKN is this year–it can probably afford to take the long view. In fact, the aerospace arm of a group that started life building lighthouses back in 1759–just 30 years before French revolutionaries stormed the Bastille in 1789–continues to be thankful for the exceptional growth it has achieved in the past decade alone.

“Our business has trebled over the past 10 years,” said GKN Aerospace CEO Marcus Bryson. “Back then we were a UK company with 1,500 employees and now we are global with 10,000 employees.”

In fact, GKN Aerospace’s most recent leap forward was achieved with further expansion in the UK just over six months ago, on January 5, when it assumed full ownership of the former Airbus wing component and assembly factory at Filton in the UK. GKN paid £136 million ($214 million) for the business and its new GKN Aerospace-Filton unit has essentially become a first tier design-and-build partner.

The Filton plant makes wing leading and trailing edges for the A330, A340 and A380 widebodied airliners. It is already contracted to manufacture rear spars and trailing edges for the new A350XWB, and will produce the first units for this program in
the second quarter of 2010. The site also makes ducting for environmental control systems and wiring harnesses.

For the A320 program, what remains of the Airbus site at Filton still makes the component parts for the wing trailing and leading edges, which it delivers
to GKN for final assembly. The A400M wing assembly also remains under direct Airbus control, with GKN building the composite leading and trailing edges for this program at its Cowes, UK facility.

Despite the desire to build up the Filton site’s portfolio of third-party work, Bryson stressed that GKN has a “deep, strategic relationship” with Airbus. “We are now completely embedded in its business and we have a balanced portfolio between the U.S. and European markets,” he stated.

Nonetheless, since taking over at Filton GKN has received visitors from several prospective new aerostructures clients and it confidently expects to have new third-party contracts in place by the third or fourth quarters of this year. It has made overtures to leading airframers such as Boeing and Bombardier.

At the same time, it is also looking at bringing some work back in-house to Filton to reduce reliance on its supply chain and bolster revenues at a time when production rates seem likely to dip. At a press briefing last month, Bryson said that GKN has yet to see any significant decline in output due to anticipated slowing in airliner deliveries. However, he said that short-term production rates will be “challenging” and stood by a prediction made back in January that Airbus single-aisle output will drop this year from 34 to 30 units per month.

GKN’s role in the A350XWB program is being built up at a site on the other side of the Filton Airport called G Park. Investments are being made to construct a new assembly line that will accommodate the cutting-edge composite structures that GKN will be making for Airbus’s new widebody.

Bryson said the technical work being done for the A350 will lay the foundations for GKN’s desired role on future single-aisle airliners being planned by both Boeing and Airbus. “We want to have world-leading technology for composites in wings,” he said. GKN still hopes to secure more work packages for the A350.

The rear spars that GKN is making for the A350 involve new-technology advanced fiber placement. The fully automated facilities are due to open in the third quarter of this year as part of what will amount to almost $197 million of investment over five years that Bryson said will take GKN “into a new league in terms of size and capability.” Filton has become GKN’s European headquarters for aerostructures work, which also takes place on the other side of the Atlantic at facilities such as the St. Louis, Missouri plant that the group acquired from Boeing several years ago. The group is also active in producing nacelles, ice protection systems, cockpit windows and canopies for fighter aircraft.

The takeover of Airbus’s Filton site took 18 months to complete in a process that Bryson admitted had been long and difficult at times–particularly because of the information technology obstacles that had to be overcome. During this period, Airbus trimmed the factory’s workforce by 300 jobs, leaving 1,500. “It will be highly symbolic for the Filton workforce not to be 100-percent dependent on Airbus work,” said Bryson.

According to Airbus, the sale of the Filton wing assembly operation completes the restructuring of its aerostructures activities. Under the Power 8 cost-reduction plan devised in 2007 in response to the weakness of the U.S. dollar against Europe’s euro currency, Airbus had intended to sell the UK plant, in addition to several others in both France and Germany. In October 2008, it was able to offload its Laupheim, Germany factory to the Diehl/ Thales joint venture, but it was not able to complete the sale of other facilities.

Accordingly, the European airframer’s parent company, EADS, has opted to run the German Airbus sites at Nordenham and Varel under a new joint venture called Premium Aerotech. Similarly, the French locations of Meaulte and St. Nazaire Ville are now run by a new company called Aerolia. Both of these companies are directly owned by EADS (rather than Airbus itself) and began operations on January 1.