Strata Aims For Leadership In Composites

 - November 12, 2011, 2:15 AM
Mubadala Aerospace's Strata facility in Al Ain is staffed mainly by local workers. It is producing composite parts for Airbus and ATR.

Mubadala Aerospace’s global ambitions in the aerospace arena are already achieving tangible successes at Strata, its composite aerostructures manufacturing subsidiary. Strata’s 230,000-sq-ft facility is located at the Al Ain Aerospace Center at Abu Dhabi’s Al Ain International Airport.

The $250 million plant was just “desert and sand” when ground was broken in September 2009, said CEO Ross Bradley. But now Strata is making flap track fairings for Airbus A330/340s and the A380, and is close to completing work package contracts to manufacture spoilers for the Boeing’s 787, and rudder and vertical and horizontal tail assemblies for ATR turboprop aircraft.

“We want to be market leaders in a decade, and an organization where the majority of employees at all levels will be [Emerati] nationals,” said Bradley, who is delighted to have disproved doubters who questioned the validity of Strata’s ambitions in composites. “The industry thought we were smoking opium, but those who know the UAE know when we set out to do something, we do it.”

Some of the industry’s skepticism came from Strata’s determination to develop an indigenous workforce, given the region’s heavy reliance on imported labor to meet its needs. But Strata sees homegrown employees who feel a sense of ownership as a key to its long-term success, dovetailing with the Abu Dhabi sovereign wealth fund’s objective of creating a sustainable diversified economy.

Accelerated Development

Nonetheless, Bradley noted that it took South Korea three decades of determined development to create its world-class industrial capabilities. Strata plans to accelerate the process through rigorous recruitment and training of locals, many drawn from Al Ain’s underemployed 100,000 inhabitants. Nationals comprise 30 percent of the current workforce of 420–90 percent of them women.

The preponderance of women in Strata’s local workforce is likely to continue. Deputy CEO Badr Al Olama said that men from the area are more likely to travel in search of employment, while women prefer opportunities close to home. Moreover, Strata does not aim to create a large workforce, but rather use automation to drive the company’s productivity.

A factory tour last Thursday underscored Strata’s lean manufacturing approach. The staffing level throughout the cavernous facility made it appear as if everyone was on lunch break. In one mammoth clean room (a total 43,000 sq ft of the facility comprises Class A clean rooms), a handful of employees laid sheets of composite fiber into molds, the material placement aided by green laser beams. A three-dimensional CNC milling machine trimmed and drilled holes on a composite part, while elsewhere part quality was examined by a gantry-sized ultrasonic nondestructive inspection system using high pressure water.

Despite what appeared to be an excess of space, with the contracts on hand and about to be realized, operations director Brad Hume said the company is now calculating how to refine its existing floor plan or whether a new facility will be required to meet production targets.

Strata is concentrating on composite structures for wings and empennage, believing these are the aircraft parts that will increasingly rely on composite parts, whereas fuselages “may move back to aluminum,” said Bradley.

Next year Strata will begin producing spoilers for the B-787 as a first-tier supplier, shipping parts directly to the Boeing assembly line. Strata will also begin supplying rudders and horizontal and vertical stabilities to Alenia Aeronautica, which provides parts for ATR regional turboprops.

Through SABCA, Strata will likely provide flap track fairings for the Airbus A350, subject to a contract being finalized. By the end of 2012, Strata plans to have 710 employees.

In garnering more work Strata is pursuing a two-pronged strategy: First, taking on work for composite parts suppliers whose products have reached manufacturing maturity, and who are eager to pursue newer processes and technologies. “We put our people in the plants, and look at how we can improve the process. We ask [the process developers], if you were going to do it over, what would be different? It’s a continuous improvement program.”

Secondly, Strata plans to develop its own intellectual property in partnership with other companies and educational institutions, and through internal research and develop efforts yet to be launched.

Strata previously announced it had $1.3 billion in work orders. Now that figure has grown to $2 billion, Bradley said, and he expects the company to return Mubadala’s $250 million investment in the factory by the end of 2014.

The Al Ain Aerospace Center in which Strata is located is a 9.6-sq-mi tax-free “free zone” with a development plan that extends to the year 2060. Here, foreign companies will be able to establish businesses retaining 100 percent ownership. “This will be like Seattle and Toulouse,” said Bradley, comparing the site’s future to Boeing’s and Airbus’s hometowns. But in the interim Strata has a more pressing goal of its own, said Bradley: “From desert to market leader in a decade.”