Mechanical engineering is trying to turn a corner in WalesPosted: May 14, 2014
By Rupert Hall,
The environment is more like that of an operating theatre than an engineering workshop.
There is a sterility about the entire scenario, reinforced by men in spotless overalls who work noiselessly on pieces of intricately-designed metal which have been extracted from a nearby jet engine.
Even the most intrepid air travellers can but stand and marvel at their size and complexity, not failing to recognise the letters embossed on the engines’ housing – RR or Rolls Royce.
Fifty-year-old Bob James, founder and managing director of Aerfin, looks at them in the way some men would look at a picture of a sporting idol.
He said: “The cost of a jet engine such as the General Electric G90, Rolls Royce Trent 800 or the Pratt & Whitney 4120 would be in the region of $20m or £14m.
“Here we are providing the maintenance, repair and overhaul facilities, through a supply chain solution, to reduce engine maintenance cost.
“Today there is $58bn of annual aircraft production with $6bn spent on new engines.”
Mr James started Aerfin in 2010, having begun his career in the aviation industry at the age of 16 when he became an apprentice fabrication engineer, before transferring to a technical apprenticeship which he completed as a draughtsman.
Recalling his early years at Rolls Royce, he said: “I then moved into repair development, taking aircraft engine components manufactured by Rolls Royce which needed servicing and working on those.
“Doing that exposes you to a lot of other activities such as regulatory compliance, quality metallurgy, design and stress, while introducing you to the customer and customer relations.”
He added: “I did this for five years before feeling I wanted to work closer with the customer, and so I became a field service representative for Rolls Royce.”
His expectation was to travel the world. Instead he found himself in Treforest at a plant then owned by British Airways (BA).
By 1991 the aviation industry was changing rapidly and, within six months, he had moved between Rolls Royce, BA and General Electric, acquiring experience in a customer support and development role, which gave him exposure to such elements as maintenance, cost management, technical issues and engine testing.
He said: “In 1995 the leasing business was growing. The financial community weren’t as technically aware of the maintenance cost and risk associated with cost exposure as they are today.
“I saw an opportunity to work with the leasing companies and airlines, who were moving out of the older equipment, investing in new and focusing on their core business of flying passengers and not repairing engines.”
Against this backdrop Mr James set up Total Engine Support (TES) which offered technical, consulting and advisory services to commercially manage engine maintenance costs for airlines and leasing companies.
This led TES to have 1,000 engines under management and resulted in the move into engine leasing, engine buying, and then to buying old aircraft to remove the engines.
The company’s success came to the notice of DVB Bank which needed a bolt-on power plant engineering management organisation to assist in optimising its own assets, and in 2007 the business was sold.
“I stayed on as part of the succession plan before leaving to spend time with the family,” Mr James said.
“Then in 2010 I had the opportunity to come back into the industry when the financial crisis had hit a number of airlines and I felt there was an opportunity to look at distressed assets in a different way.
“So I started Aerfin with the purchase of eight aircraft engines and spent nine months recruiting people and attracting investors.
“This led to an opportunity to support a cost reduction exercise with a major airline, and that saw us take engines to Cardiff Bay where we recruited more staff, and we restructured our quality systems, management and HR activity in training and personal development programmes for staff.”
In the cathedral-like silence of the 45,000sq ft shop floor, staff are still working noiselessly.
Mr James said: “Our staff are specialist in nature. We have been successful in recruiting and we are careful who we take on, because it’s a difficult skill set to acquire.
“We look for those who have a power plant engineering and aerospace background or have gained experience with major airlines, the RAF and firms such as GE.
“So it’s challenging finding the right people with a detailed knowledge of manufacturing and engineering.”
After its move to a new site in Bedwas House Industrial Estate, Caerphilly, part-financed by a Welsh Government grant, the company now has all its aircraft disassembly services on one site, providing storage, warehousing and parts distribution.
Mr James said: “We’ve grown the technical department and continue to support the leasing companies we have been involved with on projects such as repossessing aircraft out of Egypt and Russia and taking distressed assets out of South America and Hungary.
“It’s all part of a strategy that sees us working closely with the original equipment manufacturer. We work with selective clients and manufacturers, shipping the material overseas for overhauling.
“Then the parts come back to us and we dispatch them with all the historical documentation and certification in a form that allows a company such as GE to install it as though it were a new part, thus saving the airline money.”
Aerfin is a business competing in an industry that is constantly changing. It’s a technically-driven organisation where safety is paramount and skills training integral to maintaining those standards.
The major manufacturers, along the supply chain, lead the way in introducing innovative components, and demands on noise, carbon emissions and fuel reduction become factors that drive the industry to improve the design and technology of aircraft.
These factors, Mr James explained, have a knock-on impact.
“Manufacturers are at the front end, driving the innovation and technology for new equipment at the expense of maintaining the low cost of legacy engines that still need to be serviced and operated. Every year there are a 1,000 new aircraft being delivered that will stay on the wing for seven to 10 years.”
Looking to the future, Mr James believes there will be significant growth opportunities for Aerfin that will see it working closely with manufacturers and maintenance, repair and overhaul organisations.
Within Europe there are few companies that have the tooling and equipment in an approved environment to completely disassemble an engine to the satisfaction of the major manufacturers.
All of which would indicate a secure future for the 20 highly qualified staff currently employed in the maintenance, repair and overhaul of jet engines.
This leads Mr Jones to say: “In order to achieve all this we have invested heavily in getting staff familiar with aviation process systems and they form a highly-skilled part of the Welsh economy which will remain here.
“The history of aviation in South Wales goes back a long way, to British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) days in Treforest, which became BA then GE.
“On the periphery are the supporting industries composed of tooling and equipment manufacturing firms, along with a Welsh Aerospace Forum.
“This brings aerospace businesses, of which there are many, together, and that’s not including Airbus in North Wales and Rolls Royce at Bristol.
“Finally we have the local colleges which are proactive in developing apprenticeships and sponsored scholarships to bring people through.”
His conclusion is: “The skill base in Wales has a strong history in mechanical engineering which sadly deteriorated through 1980s and 1990s.
“Now we are trying to turn the corner, and in this training and development are the keys to growth.”
Sourced by Wales Online