The aerospace and transportation systems division of the Liebherr Group represented only 11 percent of the multinational group’s 2011 turnover of €8.3 billion ($11.5 billion). And its customer service facility in Saline, Michigan, a city of 9,000 people near Detroit, is a long way from Liebherr’s headquarters in the picturesque town of Bulle, Switzerland. But the close embrace of the family-owned business was evident when Liebherr-Aerospace Saline inaugurated a new addition June 14.
Invited guests and customers filed past framed photographs in the Saline reception area of the late Hans Liebherr, who established the business in 1949 as a manufacturer of mobile tower cranes, and his son and daughter Willi and Isolde, who run it now from Switzerland. In attendance were the French and German leaders of the aerospace and transportation systems division, including Francis Niss, the Toulouse-based division president, and Arndt Schoenemann, who manages the division’s manufacturing plant in Lindenberg, Germany. Liebherr’s presence has contributed to a “sister city” relationship between Saline and Lindenberg.
Liebherr-Aerospace & Transportation is one of 10 divisional companies within the Liebherr Group, which is more widely known as a manufacturer of cranes, construction machinery and mining equipment, including the mammoth T282B, one of the world’s largest capacity dump trucks. Liebherr-Aerospace manufactures landing gear and flight control/actuation systems in Lindenberg and air management systems in Toulouse. The company also has manufacturing facilities in Guaratingueta, Brazil, and Nizhny Novgorod, Russia.
The group’s components fly on Airbus, Embraer, Bombardier and Sukhoi airliners, Bombardier and Dassault business jets and AgustaWestland and Eurocopter helicopters. Liebherr has also gained a foothold with Boeing on the 747-8 freighter and passenger versions. It supplies the aircraft’s air management system, which uses bleed air from the engines to supply the cabin.
Liebherr (Hall 4 E6) is returning to the Farnborough International Airshow after a long absence, caused in part because the biennial UK event skirted ILA, the Berlin air show, which is scheduled this year in September. The aerospace division employs 2,000 people in Lindenberg and 1,100 in Toulouse. It has wholly owned service stations in the U.S., Canada, France, Germany, Singapore and China. It also participates in service joint ventures with Germany’s Diehl Aerospace and France’s Thales and Zodiac Aerospace in the commercial market, and with Diehl, Thales and France’s Sagem in the military market.
Aftermarket support provided by the six owned service stations, which include Saline, generated $392 million in 2011, representing 31 percent of the aerospace division’s total sales, said Charles Thoyer-Rozat, executive vice president of customer support services. Ninety percent of that business comes from commercial and regional aircraft repairs; less than 10 percent is military business.
“The locations of these [service] stations have been carefully selected to provide comfort to the customers by working in the same time zone and, as much as we can, speaking the same language and sharing the same culture,” said Thoyer-Rozat. “This is the ‘proximity’ parameter of our strategy equation.”
Liebherr’s Legacy in Saline
Liebherr components supplied on Embraer, Bombardier and Airbus airplanes and Eurocopter and AgustaWestland helicopters operating in North and South America cycle through Saline for repair or overhaul. The aerospace company’s presence there dates to 1989, in what started as a field service location for Airbus A320 operators. Liebherr Gear Technology and Automation established the plant in 1986 to support the Detroit automotive industry. The facility obtained Part 145 repair station accreditation from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration in late 1991.
The first component on its capability list was the tail rotor actuator of the Eurocopter BK 117 helicopter. Liebherr Saline claims to have conducted the first Embraer ERJ145 landing gear overhaul in 2005. This year, it started the first landing gear overhauls of Embraer E170/190/195 series E-Jets operated by Air Canada.
In 2009, Liebherr-Aerospace opened a new final assembly line in Saline to support EADS North America in supplying the UH-72A Lakota light utility helicopter (LUH), a military version of the Eurocopter EC145, to the U.S. Army. EADS’s contract award from the Army in 2006 stipulated that most of the manufacturing take place in the U.S.
Liebherr Saline assembles four components (three part numbers) of the Lakota–the main and tail rotor actuators and two hydraulic valve blocks and reservoirs–which it delivers to American Eurocopter for installation in Columbus, Mississippi. During a plant tour, Jochen Faber, Liebherr Saline vice president of operations, said the company produces one shipset per week, and had delivered 220 of the 352 planned shipsets to American Eurocopter.
The plant does other military work. Liebherr and Israel’s Rafael Advanced Defense Systems produce a cooling unit used by Northrop Grumman for the Litening targeting and surveillance pod equipped on U.S. Air Force F-16, F-15, A-10 and other aircraft. The cooling unit is serviced in Saline.
The aerospace facility employs 130 workers on site (10 people work at liaison offices in Seattle and Wichita) and last year generated revenue of $70 million. The latest expansion of the plant by 33,000 sq ft increases the Liebherr-Aerospace footprint in Saline to 100,000 sq ft of workshops, warehouse and office space, with another 30,000 sq ft assigned to sister companies Liebherr Gear Technology, Liebherr Automation and LiebherrComponents. In 2008, Liebherr acquired 54 acres of farmland adjacent to the facility. It plans to expand as conditions warrant.
“Really, the success that Liebherr has seen in being a supplier to airframers trickles down to Saline as a service center,” said Alex Vlielander, Liebherr-Aerospace Saline president. “The better able Liebherr as an OEM can win programs on aircraft types around the world translates, four or five years down the road, to how Saline is able to grow.” During a press briefing in advance of the grand opening ceremony June 14, Vlielander cited landing gear overhauls of 50-seat Embraer ERJ145s and larger E-Jets, in particular, for driving growth.
The company broke ground on the $3.5 million expansion last October and obtained an occupancy permit just before the opening event. Among guest speakers at the opening were Philip Liebherr, a third-generation member of the ownership family; local U.S. congressional Representative Tim Walberg; and Saline mayor Gretchen Driskell, who began her welcoming address in German.
“Liebherr has been an important part of our community for many years,” Driskell said. “The city greatly appreciates the fact that Liebherr continues to choose to expand in our community. We know that there is a very competitive environment for locating business, and we pledge to continue to work with Liebherr to be the most competitive location.”
The crowd then filed into the spotless new building wing for a ribbon-cutting ceremony, and there was serenaded by the Saline Fiddlers, a high school ensemble that has toured Lindenberg, among other German cities.
Liebherr said the expansion will help accommodate future service on the new Bombardier C Series and Airbus A350XWB landing gear. On June 11, the company delivered, from Lindenberg, the first instrumented nose gear for an A350 flight-test aircraft, Schoenemann told AIN.
Liebherr-Aerospace is also supplying the landing gear and integrated air management system of the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (Comac) C919 narrowbody airliner and comparable systems on the Comac ARJ21 regional jet. “Almost all the new major commercial aircraft programs have embarked with Liebherr on board, laying a sound foundation for the future development of the company,” said Niss.