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Collins Amps Up Investment as Brakes, Gear Business Soars

 - October 21, 2019, 11:20 AM
Technicians at Collins Aerospace’s Landing Systems unit work on main landing gear assemblies in support of Gulfstream G650 production. Collins has long been a provider of brake components, including high-carbon-content discs, for a wide variety of business aircraft.

Collins Aerospace is pouring millions into expanding facilities, machinery, and employee bases at its Landing Systems businesses as it works to keep up with growth across its markets. This has included an $80 million expansion at its carbon-brake center in Pueblo, Colorado; possible expansion at a second carbon site in Spokane, Washington; and increased personnel and machinery at landing gear sites in Poland and Canada.

“It's a very good time to be in aerospace these days,” said Ajay Mahajan, vice president of the Landing Systems unit. “We continue to feel pretty good about our conditions going forward and we will continue to strive to maintain that advantage by our investments.”

Collins (Booth C10808) produces wheels and brakes and/or landing gear for the spectrum of commercial aircraft, and executives agree much of the growth the Landing Systems business unit is experiencing is driven by healthy airliner order books. However, the company also sees a steady business and new opportunities in the business aviation market, as well as increasing interest in the military side, particularly with strategic programs such as the F35.

“We're seeing a fair amount of expansion across the board,” agreed Samir Mehta, president of Collins Aerospace’s Mechanical Systems business lines, which includes Landing Systems. “We're seeing it certainly in commercial, and that's single aisle and double aisle. Our customers have strong backlogs and strong order books on them, so that's driving a lot of the demand.”

On the business aviation side, executives see potential as Landing Systems—a legacy United Technologies Aerospace Systems (UTAS) business—continues to capitalize on the well-established relationships that came with its recently merged Rockwell Collins partner.

“Rockwell Collins is obviously very skilled in business aviation, knowledgeable about the market, the products,” Mehta said. Legacy UTAS has long served the business aviation market, he said, but “it wasn’t necessarily an area that we really sought out for additional large-scale opportunities.” But with Rockwell Collins’s depth in the market, that opens new doors.

Mehta was particularly upbeat about the potential in business aviation, since it balances its business platforms on the commercial and military sides. “It's not codependent with what we'd see in consumer passenger traffic. The folks who use business aviation do it for efficiency, and there's an efficiency equation there. That efficiency equation is going to hold true irrespective of what GDP growth is,” he said.

Collins Aerospace’s Landing Systems unit has long been a brake provider for the Cessna Citation family, so much so that it has an MRO facility in Wichita to support that business. In addition, certain Bombardier Learjet, Challenger, and Global aircraft have Collins brakes, as do Beechcraft King Air, Pilatus, and Piaggio aircraft, among others. On the landing gear side, Gulfstream has used Collins for its suite of ultra-long-range aircraft, beginning with the G450 up through the G650.

A major focus of investment has been increasing carbon capacity as its brakes business has soared. “Everything to us is landings, landings, and landings. They're building more [aircraft] than they're retiring,” said Tony Wurmel, executive director of Wheels and Brakes operations, based at the Pueblo site.

In response, Collins has engaged in a multi-year expansion of the facilities at Collins Aerospace’s plant in Pueblo, Colorado, where raw materials are transformed into pure carbon and then into a brake disc designed to withstand landings of the heaviest aircraft for several years. That expansion, which began in 2015 and is expected to be completed late next year, has resulted in a footprint spanning 325,000 sq ft, provided additional furnace and machinery capabilities, and increased employment by some 25 percent to 250. The net result is a 50 percent increase in production capacity.

These investments build on the advanced technologies that Pueblo has been gradually bringing online as it evolves the process. This includes machinery to do the basic weaving of the raw materials that arrive primarily from two main suppliers (both in Japan). As it arrives, that material has the appearance of soft “horsehair” and machines shape it into soft, thick blocks that are then cut into brake disc shapes before they are baked multiple times in furnaces.

A significant amount of investment has been made in bringing several more furnaces online that are the key to carbonization (purification) and densification of the discs. The furnaces run around the clock for weeks at a time as they bake racks carrying hundreds of carbon brake discs at temperatures that can reach more than 2,000 degrees centigrade.

The furnaces are monitored through a control room to ensure they remain within tolerances—a half-degree of variance can upset the entire process. Investments in this area over the past decade have reduced the need for the constant manual checking of the furnaces.

Other investments have involved robots to help with the oxidization process, a protective coating step to ensure the discs can withstand exposure to weather elements over time. Collins further has brought online machinery to quality-test the brakes. Each batch must have discs tested for rejected takeoff stresses on an in-house dynamometer.

While the basic process has remained the same, it has evolved and become much more efficient over the four-plus decades that carbon brakes have been produced. “Our carbon that we produce with today's process is much more reliable, much more effective, and has significantly lower wear rates than even 10 years ago,” Mehta said.

Steel brakes were initially far less expensive to produce, but over the years, the investments have brought down costs of the carbon process, Wurmel said.

While the headquarters for wheels and brakes is in Troy, Ohio, where the brake assemblies are put together, Pueblo houses the research and development where the “secret sauce” is refined, the chemistry behind the making of the brakes to ensure they have the right balance of lightweight materials and strength. With their strength and the resulting weight savings of hundreds of pounds for larger aircraft, the carbon brakes have supplanted steel brakes in most cases.

Pueblo is just one of three carbon plants that Collins operates. Another major center is Spokane, where Mahajan said Collins is considering a similar investment. 

A third, smaller site is in Santa Fe Springs, California. That site takes the basic carbon produced at the larger facilities and makes the carbon brakes for the smaller-run programs, including some military and newer business aviation platforms. It completely produces the discs via a two-dimensional process that involves use of resin for older business aviation aircraft. The larger carbon facilities use a three-dimensional process that does not require the bonding agent.

On the landing gear side, Collins is focusing on the growth of facilities outside of the U.S. in an effort to be closer to customers, said Mahajan. “We now have a huge footprint in Poland,” he said, adding that with manufacturing plants at Krosno and Rzeszow, Poland is becoming one of its largest gear manufacturing hubs.

Another growth area is its plant in Oakville, Ontario, Canada. “We are growing quite a bit, both in terms of people, as well as investing in new equipment,” he said, estimating that more than 100 employees have been added to the site in the past nine months. In addition, more machines have been brought in and “we’ll continue to expand that going forward.”

But beyond facilities, Mahajan points to other kinds of investment, including new manufacturing technologies such as additive (3-D printing) and new materials, such as composites. Long-term, additive may come into play there, but in the shorter term, Mahajan sees it being incorporated into maintenance repairs first.

Maintainability is another significant focus of research investment, Mehta said, noting efforts for “smart” maintenance procedures. He cites the manual process involved in landing gear inspections. “These are, for the most part, still hydraulics, so you're largely checking hydraulic fluid levels.” This requires a maintainer to crawl underneath an aircraft and checking fluid levels. Collins, however, is investing in technologies that can use sensors to test fluids and transmit that data remotely.

“It won't be subjective on whether or not something needs servicing, and it won't be a very manual process,” he said. The technology will be able to send indicators wirelessly to the maintenance crew on devices such as tablets.

“The thing that we're doing is to work closely with our customers. These technologies envision a different role, whether in the cockpit for our pilots, the flight attendants, and the maintainers. That's the breadth of what we have at Collins,” he said.

Both the legacy UTAS and its merged Rockwell Collins units “are willing to invest in their technology, invest in understanding that maybe we're going to try a few things that are leaning forward, maybe beyond current technology readiness,” Mehta said, adding when the market is ready for the new technology, the units are poised for that business.