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by Tim Wilson

Aerospace OEMs tightening manufacturing supply chain

Changes are afoot in the aerospace sector, and many metalworking shops in Canada are in a good position to benefit.

The recent problems with the Boeing 787 Dreamliner have resulted in an industry-wide push to shorten the supply chain, and technological advances are supporting Canadian shops delivering to precise design specifications.

“British Columbia is part of the Northwest hub, and Boeing wants its supply chain in proximity,” says Steve Archer, director of business development at Avcorp Industries Inc., Delta, BC. “Companies in Japan and other parts of Asia are now compelled to look at collaboration with local suppliers in the Pacific Northwest, which is providing opportunities for Western Canadian companies.”

There is room for growth in the BC lower mainland for companies like Avcorp that serve the nearby Boeing assembly plants in the Puget Sound area. And Avcorp, which also designs and builds airframe structures for Bombardier and Cessna, sees the trend as creating overall opportunity for aerospace manufacturers in the eastern part of the country, too.

“If you look at Bombardier in the east, it is also tightening its supply chain,” says Archer. “Mitsubishi Heavy Industries moved its tooling from Nagoya, Japan to Mississauga, ON. This is greenfield. It is an automated, lean plant for wing assembly.”

Pushing the envelope
This is happening in the context of combined total demand nearly outstripping the capacity of the larger Boeing and Airbus global supply chain. But it is also a vote of confidence in Canadian industry and its ability to build parts with increasingly rigorous precision requirements.

“The more precise the jet engine parts can be, the better the engines are,” says Eric Beauregard, CEO of AV&R Vision & Robotics in Montreal, which is setting a new standard with its metallic robotic finishing solution (see sidebar on right).

“When we asked around to elaborate our profiling solution, the precision looked for was ± 50 microns,” says Beauregard. “But something interesting happened when we presented our solution: the required precision was modified to ± 37.5 microns.”

In effect, the designers who impose production precision specifications changed their requests to reflect AV&R’s capabilities.

“Moreover, these days we are starting to hear the designers talk about precision levels of as low as ± 25 microns,” says Beauregard.

The ongoing pressure to make parts as precise as possible should provide a solid boost to Canadian job shops feeding the aerospace sector, given that the drive to increased precision enhances Canada’s long-term competitiveness, something that is now backstopped by a market-driven incentive to keep the supply chain close to home.

At the ready
“Our aerospace manufacturers are good at what they do,” says Al Diggins, president and general manager, Excellence in Manufacturing Consortium (EMC), and co-CEO of the Canadian Manufacturing Network. “They can hold their own with the high tech requirements.”

Diggins says that 17 per cent of EMC’s membership is in the aerospace sector, and they are among the consortium’s most active members, with aerospace being a bright spot on Canada’s manufacturing landscape in part because it is backed by strong global demand. Boeing, for example, now has a record sold backlog of more than 4,000 airplanes worth nearly US $310 billion. 

“The demand for these airplanes is driven by sustained economic growth in China, the Asia Pacific Region and the Middle East, coupled with the replacement of a large number of aging aircraft in North America and Europe,” says Archer from Avcorp. “At the same time, Airbus is experiencing an increase in demand for new aircraft.”

And though the use of composites is on the rise, the increasing price of petroleum means resins and fibers are more expensive, too, which argues for the continued use and relevance of precision-tested lightweight and high strength metal alloys. There will be special demand for long bed aluminum and hard metal complex machining in multi-axis environments, with those machine shops that can deliver to advanced specs likely in good shape for years to come.

 “With airplane production rates set to increase 40 per cent over the next three years, Boeing will spend more than US $30 billion per year globally with its suppliers,” says Archer.

To produce those airplanes Boeing and Airbus depend heavily on thousands of suppliers from all over the world. However, a more streamlined supply chain is a necessity for OEMs to reduce production risk and meet demand. That puts Canada in a sweet spot, with strong incentives to build competitiveness in the sector. SMT

Tim Wilson is a contributing editor. [email protected]


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