FINN editor-in-chief Alan Peaford talks to ADS’ Chief Executive and suppliers about how collaborations within and outside the sector are helping save lives – and could secure its future.

In just a few months, the aerospace industry has been turned on its head by the coronavirus pandemic.

Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention, and in times of need, how an organisation or an industry reacts is a good indicator of its ability to innovate and think outside the box. Instead of being part of the supply chain providing parts, or actually building, engines and airframes, the industry has been answering – and delivering – on the NHS’ call for help.

ADS Chief Executive Paul Everitt said the industry, which became one of the first sectors to feel the massive impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, had managed to help with the national effort to combat the coronavirus, despite challenging circumstances.

He explained: “We have a large number of companies who are directly involved in the ventilator challenge, leading lights like Meggitt, GKN, Airbus, but also a lot of smaller businesses who are supplying some of the specialist parts to the ventilators and who’ve responded really remarkably, both swiftly, and I think you know, courageously to support what they view as a real national effort.”

The Ventilator Challenge UK project has brought together some of the biggest names in aerospace and manufacturing. Aerospace firms of all sizes have also worked alongside automotive and motor racing sector businesses within the consortium to rapidly develop and deliver a prototype machine which could be mass produced with the aim of delivering more than 15,000 life saving units into hospitals.

Precision engineering keeps UK at forefront of global industry

Everitt said: “I think that’s one of the big strengths, in UK aerospace is that yes, you need the larger players to bring some of the both financial and I guess organisational capability to some of some of these sort of projects. But it is the specialist skills and precision engineering that sits within our highly specialised UK supply chain. That is what keeps UK aerospace at the forefront of the global industry. But, on this occasion, [it] was able to respond again to a new kind of challenge that are not normal, and particularly circumstances that many people were having to work in.”

As well as fighting alongside the NHS in the battle to save lives, the industry has also been vocal in calling for government assistance to help it weather the unprecedented drop in demand caused by COVID-19.

Everitt said: “This is a crisis, the likes of which we’ve never seen before. I think, you know, back in January in February, we were looking at this and going well, we’ve had some experience around this type of thing before, went through 9/11 and SARS and a number of other things, [including] the financial crash. Now what we’re seeing is the both the scale and the speed of the impact”

Everitt said with 98 per cent of the passenger fleet grounded, ADS is also working within another collaborative effort, working alongside airline and airport associations to send a clear message to the government on measures which the trade bodies believe will help protect companies, jobs and skills.

Passengers need reassurance before boarding flights again

He explained: “One is we need to extend some of the excellent schemes that have been put in place. So the job retention centre, job retention scheme that government has been running, also to look at maybe business rate reliefs, which you know, provide immediate cash flow benefit for many companies. But then, perhaps most importantly, working together to plan how we come out of this lockdown period. because fundamentally, we need to get planes back in the skies. We need to get passengers comfortable that they are going to be both safe and healthy to fly.”

Darren Butterworth is CEO of Baxter Woodhouse & Taylor (BWT) which has spent 185 years in the clothing industry, most recently making pilot uniforms and even heated flying suits. Today, as part of Senior Aerospace, the company designs and makes low pressure ducting for regional and business aircraft from Japan to Russia, North America to Brazil.

With the impact on aviation rippling through to suppliers, the company has had to reduce headcount to around half of its employees working on site, using the government’s furlough scheme.

Instead of clothing, the company is now manufacturing lightweight ducts. Butterworth explained the background behind the change: “I think the first contribution that we made to the sort of medical response was [that] we do sell a very small amount of lightweight, flexible ducting into the medical industry. And we had some orders that were urgently required for ventilators. So we managed to expedite those in 72 hours.”

Additive manufacturers looking at global efforts to contain pandemic

“And then we look to what else was required. Fortunately, in the past two years, we had invested in some new technology and the additive manufacturing machines. We invested in a couple of Stratasys FDM machines. The additive manufacturing community globally was looking at what they could do and my team came across a couple of designs that had become available on open source and they originated from an individual in Sweden who designed a very simple headset and visor.”

The team started trialling the printing of a simple headset visor, working with distributors in the Stratasys network who had contacts with Birmingham University Hospitals.

Butterworth added: “The design wasn’t quite right for medical use in the NHS, but with the help of a consultant called Stephen Edmondson in the Birmingham hospital, he made some adaptations to make it suitable for NHS use. The main change was to make the visor extend further away from the face, so we prototyped those changes on the additive manufacturing machines and went into production and so did many of the other companies in the supply chain.”

BWT worked with Bentley to produce visors

BWT was also able to leverage contacts with Bentley, the car manufacturer based in Crewe and was able to utilise their machines as well. Butterworth said: “Today, we’ve distributed about 2,000 units, and they’re just completely free of charge to hospitals, GP surgeries, and NHS care homes, those sorts of establishments.”

Butterworth used social media and direct contact to local GP surgeries deliver and the company became inundated with requests for help.

He said: “We only had to contact a few and deliver a few units and, certainly, word spreads very quickly. Before you know, we were inundated with emails asking for more. So that’s how we’ve managed to distribute the 2,000 over the weekend we distributed 300 to the local hospital, just on a shout out from social media that went out.”

“Demand outweighs supply”

“Now, what we’ve realised, is that the demand outweighs the supply, and that additive manufacturing is a great technology for prototyping, but it’s never going to meet the volumes required. So we worked with the supply chain, who’d been involved in the design elements with Birmingham University, and a few other companies who’d come into that. And we purchased, about two weeks ago, an injection moulding tool. That goes into production this morning and we will have volumes of 50,000 a week from the end of this week.”

Butterworth added that traditional table cutting machines have also been adapted for the company to cut their own visors, enabling them to produce 50,000 a week. He said collaboration with the supply chain was vital to boosting capacity with composite companies Darby Atlas and AeroTron in the Midlands both offering assistance.

BWT will be working with supply chain companies dedicated to injection moulding who will supply the headsets. BWT will add the visors to them and distribute them to customers. Butterworth said the company was looking to 3D printing to take over from current production methods for aerospace volumes in time but the visors were needed in their millions and the technology was not yet mature enough to enable that.

Additive manufacturing still evolving

Butterworth added that although the coronavirus crisis would have an impact, the technology was still in the evolutionary stage. “Additive manufacturing is still at the start of its journey in aerospace,” he said. “There’s a lot of approvals and a lot of controls that are needed around the process.”

He added: “We have a project this year, that is going to get several hundred parts of our aircraft. And that’s really our launch platform this year. So I think we’re at the start, I’m not sure this crisis is going to change the speed or, or the end journey for additive manufacturing aerospace. I think that’s going to happen naturally. It’s going to find its own journey.”

Sabeti Wain designs and manufactures aircraft interiors and upholstery systems with a range of aircraft laminated seat covers and foam cushions from their factories in Buckinghamshire, Dubai and North Carolina. The company’s clients include British Airways and Emirates, but Payman Sabeti, CEO of Sabeti Wain, said the company had to look at imaginative ways to find work as orders froze.

Sabeti said the problem went across the board within the industry with all companies in the same boat, although business was looking more positive throughout the last quarter of 2020. He said: “We have a factory full of staff. We offered them the option of not coming into work and getting full pay. We didn’t want them to make a decision based on their financial situation. So we wanted to have peace of mind.”

He added: “Quite surprisingly, 90 per cent decided to come to work, which was quite a nice surprise for us. So we thought we have to find an extra work, we have to look and, of course, everybody knows the country is in this situation.”

MP jumped at chance to utilise production capabilities to help NHS

Sabeti’s niece, Alexandra contacted the local MP for the area, Steve Bacon, and said her parents and uncle had a production facility within their company. He made contact with the NHS and the company started manufacturing scrubs for retired NHS doctors and nurses rejoining the profession to help tackle coronavirus.

He explained: “Every evening, having worked 15-16 hours during the day, they were having to go home, wash the scrubs, dry them, iron them and get them ready for the next day. We said, ‘Yeah, that’s something we can definitely do.’”

“They gave us some samples, we managed to procure fabric of the quality that they use, which is actually quite a task because many other people are trying to help too and there’s a shortage. We had an initial order for about 4,000 scrubs.”

Team adapted to scrub production with ease

Sabeti said it wasn’t difficult for his team to switch from manufacturing airline seat coverings to making scrubs. He explained: “Fortunately, the team we have has mostly come from eastern Europe – the sewing machinists – and they actually came from industries where they were making garments and we train them to make seat covers.”

“The difference is that seat cushions have to fit very tight enough to fit like a glove; garments do not. Garments can be quite loose. So if anything, it’s a kind of down-skilling a little bit and quite easy for them to adopt some things that we do making clothes ‘So its actually it’s easier to do this way, we’re used to making it this way’ and we learn from them. So it’s worked out quite well.”