This coming Saturday, Belgaum will see the formal launch of a 300-acre aerospace SEZ. This is not the sort of SEZ that the government announces and nobody ever hears anything about it for a long time. This is one where land has been allotted, and work has begun, including an aircraft surface treatment facility set up by Quest Global, the promoters of the SEZ, and Magellan Aerospace. A sheet metal manufacturing facility and a precision machining facility for aircraft too are operational. On Saturday, more partnerships in aerospace design and manufacturing will be announced.
Aravind Melligeri, who co-founded Quest in the US in 1997 with a long time classmate, Ajit Prabhu, declined to say what those partnerships were; he wanted to save the thunder for the weekend. All he would say was that the idea of the SEZ was to offer an aerospace customer everything – from design to manufacture of components and systems – in one place.
It’s not surprising that somebody thinks it’s worthwhile attempting a project of this nature and scale. Many are now building on the base that public sector units like HAL and NAL have laid in Karnataka, most notably in the area of design services, but increasingly also in manufacturing. The country has emerged as a major global design centre, with international majors like Airbus, Boeing, Emerson, Snecma, Honeywell, GE Aircraft Engines and United
Technologies having set up India operations and outsourcing their engineering design requirements either to in-house centres or to third party engineering services partners like Quest, HCL, Infosys and Hyderabad-based Infotech Enterprises.
For Airbus, its Bangalore engineering centre is the only one outside Europe that does what is called `non-specific work’. These are works that are not specific to an aircraft part, but instead involves issues related to aerodynamics, aerothermics (temperature, ventilation), aeroelastics (effect on structure, such as vibration etc), and simulation of flight management. Eugen Welte, CEO of Airbus Engineering Centre in Bangalore, says his 130-strong team (expected to expand to 210 by next year) has developed new tools to create better aircraft and speed up aircraft development.
Work is on to make pilot training simulation so realistic that the pilot’s first actual flight is a breeze. Work is on to simulate to perfection a new aircraft’s flight, so that when it actually takes off for the first time, it’s a near perfect flight. Sandeep Thakur, part of the structures team in the centre, says his team is involved in identifying redundant components and finding ways to reduce dimensions of parts in a way that they can still carry the same load. “These can reduce the time to manufacture the aircraft and increase fuel efficiency,” he says.
Valmeeka Nathan, Infosys’s head of product engineering, points out that older aircraft manuals and engineers tended to overdesign aircraft in order to meet safety and other regulations. “Regulatory requirements created inefficiencies in the form of extra metal weight, higher fuel consumption,” he says. India’s software and engineering expertise is able to come up with new tools and solutions that obviate such overdesign and yet ensure the same levels of safety. “Through automation and our knowledge of software tools, we are also able to bring better designs so that customers can avoid certain intermediate steps in the production process and thus reduce tooling costs,” says Nathan, whose division claims to have touched almost all recent commercial aircraft programmes, including business jets, and all parts of an aircraft, including landing gear, fuselage, wings, avionics, inflight systems, and electrical systems (an exception being the engine).
Boeing, which set up a research and technology centre in Bangalore in March this year, is working with NAL on alloys that are corrosion free, alloys that are stronger than current materials, but yet lighter. Dinesh Keskar, president of Boeing India, says other work being done in India includes computational fluid dynamics – the use of computers to study the impact of force on almost every single point on an aircraft surface – and a project with HCL to create software to validate the 787’s flight control system.
Quest, which has 1,000 employees in India and which has dedicated facilities here for GE, Rolls Royce and EADS, is designing and building the rig to test the Airbus 350’s nose landing gear. “We are also supporting Rolls Royce in its engine work for the A350, and are even helping Airbus get more value out of its older aircraft like the A320. We are like an extension of the customer’s engineering organization,” says Melligeri.
Pavan Kumar, MD (south Asia) of Altair, a company that offers computer-aided engineering (CAE) solutions to the aerospace industry, says airline OEM’s are leveraging the best in class design/manufacturing skills across the globe. “They are aggressively using more simulation throughout their development processes. The growth and expansion of our Indian team is consistent with the growing adoption of CAE that we see in the global aerospace industry.”
Some of the work India is getting is also the result of offset obligations of aircraft manufacturers. Typically, in aircraft deals, the government that buys aircraft obliges the seller to get some part of its work done in the country. The Air India and Indian Airlines deals with Airbus and Boeing a few years ago imposed such obligations, as will some big defence aircraft deals in the pipeline. Boeing’s total offset obligation currently in India is about $2.3 billion. This partially explains the company’s announcement last month that HAL will produce flaperons for its 777 model at its facility in Bangalore. A flaperon combines aspects of both a flap (used to control lift) and ailerons (used to control roll) and are instrumental in controlling the aircraft’s manoeuvrability in flight. The company had previously said that the Tata Group would be making floor beams for the 787 Dreamliner.
Quest is manufacturing the 787’s shackle – the support arm for the landing gear – in its facility in Whitefield. Melligeri says it’s probably the first private sector player in India to set up a facility to cut titanium of this magnitude (the 787 is made mostly of titanium, instead of the conventional aluminium). He now smells a big opportunity emerging from the Indian Air Force’s expected $10-billion order for Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA). The offset obligation in this is 50% of the value of the order. The Belgaum SEZ is designed precisely for such opportunties. (With inputs from Anshul Dhamija)
by Sujit John