Paris Air Show

Under New Ownership, Middle River Ramping Up Programs

 - June 16, 2019, 7:00 AM
At a Town Hall meeting, ST Engineering’s Serh Ghee Lim discusses the future of MRAS with company employees.

The newly acquired and branded Middle River Aerostructures Systems (MRAS) is investing millions into new technologies, rapidly growing its employment base, and preparing for an expansion of its MRO work under parent Singapore Technologies Engineering (ST Engineering). On April 18, ST Engineering completed its acquisition of the nacelle systems specialist—then called Middle River Aircraft Systems—from General Electric in a deal valued at $440 million.

MRAS (Hall 5 D210, Chalet 60) joins ST Engineering’s Aerospace sector that spans MRO, passenger-to-freighter conversion, training services, and aviation asset management, among other businesses. The acquisition adds about 900 employees to ST Engineering, expanding its overall base to nearly 3,000 workers

“The acquisition of Middle River is really strategic for ST Engineering in that it is not growing a current capability, it is adding a capability onto the aerospace sector that [is] in the original equipment businesses,” said Frank Dougherty, general manager and senior v-p of MRAS. As a GE Center of Excellence, MRAS also has developed expertise in composites, he added. And importantly, said Sehr Ghee Lim, president of aerospace for ST Engineering, it provides another anchor in the U.S.

Lim called MRAS a strong fit for bringing value to shareholders, noting its manufacturing capabilities, technology expertise, and ability to share nacelle MRO business with ST Engineering’s facility in Northern Europe. MRAS has been building up its MRO, including a contract to service engine fan cases for the GEnx-1B engine on the Boeing 787.

The acquisition comes at a pivotal time for MRAS, Dougherty said, as it is in the midst of ramping up several major programs, including nacelle systems for the Airbus A320neo, Bombardier Global 7500, and Comac ARJ21, among others. These join ongoing programs such as nacelles for Embraer E -Jets and thrust reversers on Boeing 767s, Airbus 330s, Lockheed Martin C5s, and Kawasaki C-2s.

“We’ve gone through a transformation over the last 10 years with winning new programs, developing new products, and [investing] a lot of capital infusion in the business,” he said.

The company has expanded its employment by about 50 percent in the past 18 months with the addition of 300 workers. That hiring is continuing rapidly, and while not detailing employment goals, Terry Vernes, director of process engineering and composite manufacturing, said, “We can’t hire fast enough.”

Just two and one-half years into the A320neo program, the company has already delivered nearly 900 nacelles. That program is reaching a rate of about 60 a month thanks to the incorporation of new carbon-fiber placement machines and other robotics. MRAS in recent years has invested $100 million in machines and robotics for composite layup, bonding, machining, drilling, trimming, and testing.

That is part of the hundreds of millions being invested into the 90-year-old company, which occupies about 700,000 sq ft of space leased from Lockheed Martin. Vernes said he has seen MRAS make more investments and advancements in technology in the past five years than it had in decades.

In an example of one such technology, MRAS last fall put into operation robotic machine used for automated carbon-fiber placement for the outer panel of the Airbus A320neo nacelle. Now ramped up to the 60-per-month rate, that machine has reduced cycle time by 60 percent and is producing a 30 percent saving in labor costs. The carbon-fiber work previously was done by hand, requiring five shifts. That same work can now be accomplished in about a shift and one-half.

Another automated tool being put in place this summer will be used for the containment wrap for the GE9X engine nacelle on the Boeing 777X. Currently, the composite blending for the wrap is being done by hand. With 500 pounds of material being placed, Vernes estimated the work takes three weeks but will be reduced to one week with the new technologies. These are among a number of new tools that the company is bringing online.

In other areas, MRAS has made gains through digital technologies, from CAD design to use of lasers to ensure precision in manufacturing. “Efficiencies have grown dramatically with digital manufacturing,” Vernes said.

MRAS further is increasing its autoclave capabilities, with nine in house, two of which have come online in recent years. Another is expected to be added in the summer of next year.

As far as its programs, the sale to ST Engineering enables the company to branch beyond GE into other manufacturer possibilities. But at the same time, executives say that the relationship with its former parent company has remained strong.  Dougherty said that MRAS is even in talks over future potential programs. The GE Passport work, which MRAS notes is the first “truly integrated propulsion system” for business aviation, involves a Nexcelle joint venture. MRAS has the lead industrial role in that 50/50 partnership with Safran Nacelles. 

MRAS traditionally has focused on larger nacelles, particularly in the widebody arena, including programs such as the Airbus A330 and Boeing 747-8. Dougherty, however, said there is future opportunity in the business aviation arena. He believes, however, that the bulk of new manufacturing growth will come in the single-aisle airliner niche.

As far as expansion, Vernes said the company has space to grow, including access to another 250,000 sq ft or so on the Lockheed Martin site that is unoccupied.