Making sure planes can take the stress

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Naguib (seated) with Strand Aerospace's team of engineers. Photo by Patrick Goh.

When you have a client that produces around half of the world’s jetliners, naturally innovation is a part of the work. Strand Aerospace Malaysia checks aircraft structures for European aircraft manufacturer Airbus, one of its first customers.

The four-year-old company does design and certification analysis of aircraft structures. It basically calculates the amount of stress aircraft components can take before developing flaws that could compromise an aircraft’s safety.

Engineers at Strand Aerospace develop complex mathematical calculation software programmes such as MathCAD and Excel and also work with Finite Element Modelling software which allows them to simulate structural behaviour graphically. These methods allow them to design the structure according to the strength limits determined by the authorities.

“When we work on a new aircraft, the innovation will be in the work. We used to work on metal structures but now we are working on composites,” says chief operating officer Naguib Nor in an interview on April 12.

In the aviation industry, composites are increasingly preferred to metal as they are lighter and less likely to break up at stress points in situations involving turbulence. The Boeing 787 Dreamliner and Airbus A350 are examples of airplanes made mostly from composite materials.

According to Naguib, Malaysia’s aerospace industry is moving towards composites. “The three active companies that are collaborating in developing this technology for Malaysia are CTRM [Composites Technology Research Malaysia Sdn Bhd], Spirit [Aerosystems Malaysia Sdn Bhd] and us,” he says. Spirit and CTRM are also Strand Aerospace’s clients. Together, they hope to steer the Malaysian aerospace industry into becoming a significant part of the global supply chain of aircraft components.

Aside from composites, the MSC-status company is supporting the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) on the development of Aircraft Structural Integrity technology. In countries where this technology is highly developed, it allows the air force to extend the operating lives of its aircraft by manufacturing spare parts without depending on the original equipment manufacturer.

Strand Aerospace began as a sister company of UK-based Stress Analysis and Design Engineering Ltd. It was an idea thought up by the CEO of Stress Analysis, Anthony Bedborough, and Naguib, who was then general manager, to keep up with the developments in the aviation industry.

Naguib says there is a lot of movement to Asia because many clients of aircraft manufacturers, like AirAsia, are based here. He feels that Malaysia has great potential as an engineering services outsourcing hub.

Strand Aerospace’s set-up is somewhat unique. Bedborough, who is the chief executive officer, supports Strand Aerospace’s European business development but it is Naguib, along with chairman Datuk Dr Ahmed Tasir Lope Pihie, who runs the company located in Cyberjaya. Tasir is the founder of Malaysian Industry-Government Group For High Technology and was its chairman until 2008.

Strand Aerospace is jointly held by Naguib, Bedborough and Tasir. It was Bedborough who got Strand Aerospace its first job, which was to check the rear spar, a primary structure, for Airbus. This was a big deal for the company because Airbus seldom commissioned jobs outside of Europe.

“We started with the most critical part of the aircraft so now we’ve proved that we can do anything. That’s one of the reasons we did it — to prove that Malaysians can do it,” says Naguib, who graduated from Cranfield University in the UK with a degree in aerospace engineering and a Master’s in aircraft design.

Strand Aerospace’s work with Airbus over the past four years is worth around RM4 million to RM5 million. To make sure engineers at Strand Aerospace can handle working for big-time clients like Airbus, the company invested a lot in training.

Local engineers, who Naguib feels are mostly used to working in an instructional environment, are thrown into the deep end by having to work and collaborate with Stress Analysis’ senior engineers with 20 to 40 years of experience.

“At first they [local engineers] were disoriented. They had to communicate with these people and the British are very concise.

They say ‘why don’t you try this’ and then leave you. They will treat you, for all intents and purposes, as an equal. This is the kind of dialogue Strand Aerospace requires,” he says.

“We have group projects and simulations. In that aspect, we get people to interact with each other,” he adds. Naguib says this is crucial as having an effective communication system within an organisation helps spot a problem quickly.
By the end of this year, he aims to double the number of staff members to 20. In five to 10 years’ time, he wants to increase the number to between 50 and 100.

Aside from in-house staff training, Strand Aerospace has also begun providing technical and engineering soft skills training to the RMAF, Spirit and CTRM, to name but a few.

For its FY2009 ended May 31, Strand Aerospace notched up RM2 million in revenue. Naguib says the amount was small due to the company’s new graduate training programme as well as the exchange rate as most of its contracts are quoted in pound sterling.

The company plans to diversify its services as it expands its business. Instead of just focusing on primary structures, it will also design other aircraft parts such as furnishing and systems such as the hydraulic system. “This way, there will be more volume in the work we receive,” says Naguib.

This article appeared in [email protected], the monthly management pullout of The Edge Malaysia, Issue 804, May 3-9, 2010.

Source: The Edge Malaysia

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