Composite capabilities

Posted on 14 Jun 2011

As British aerospace manufacturers strive to stand out from the international crowd, the sector is positively thriving, with innovation in composite components adding huge amounts of value. Beagle Aerospace is a valid example, as George Archer discovers

Based in Christchurch, Dorset, Beagle Aerospace specialises in the maintenance and manufacturing of components for aircraft. It is easy to prepare yourself for a grimy, oily crowded and dark environment before factory visits, especially when you’re on the train riding through leafy forests and rolling hills. However, these days it is often not the case.

Andy Elford, head of technology at Beagle, pointed to a section of the factory where technicians sat at worktables, collaborating with their colleagues and working on aircraft components.

Passing a freshly cleared section of the factory on the way through to the meeting room, it became clear that Beagle had plans for the future The UK’s aerospace sector is the second largest in the world, with 2006 annual revenues exceeding £20 billion. Those involved in designing, maintaining and repairing components are consistently ploughing efforts into developing new production and treatment processes. As emerging economies like China and India grow and are able to do similar jobs for less, the need for British innovation and specialisation in specific areas is ever more important.

For John Taylor, managing director of Beagle Aerospace, the importance of retaining Beagle’s existing specialist knowledge and investing in technology and equipment to provide new capabilities is priority number one. As an established manufacturer of out-of-service parts supporting both military and civil aircraft, Beagle Aerospace is consistently making efforts to add to its repertoire of services for the aircraft industry.

Components of the machine
After the previous managing director left in September 2010, Mr Taylor jointly ran the company, and became managing director in February. During this time the board was also strengthened by the addition of two new non-execs, Simon Luxmore and Tony Edwards.

The first thing that Taylor focused on was key market areas for customers. Understanding what customers really need was the first question Beagle asked. Adding the facilities to create the potential for a broad set of production and maintenance processes was viewed as a necessity.

“There was a consensus within the team that Beagle needed to increase capabilties within the composite area.” He added: “We also wanted to focus on improving the scope of the metal fabrications that we already do.” Taylor and his team have taken the strength of Beagle as a brand and concentrated on its profile, while increasing the presence of the brand on an international stage by attending international air shows. The previous management team weren’t as focused on the brand as much as the current team and this is one of the examples of the changes at Beagle. The attention paid to customers has increased, and responding to their demands is a serious priority for Taylor.

In January 2011 The company achieved AC7118 “B” accreditation from NADCAP for their work on composites. This is something widely sought after in the aerospace industry, and it fits perfectly with Beagle’s aim of continuing to specialise in certain areas while differentiating from competitors.

John Taylor, managing director of Beagle Aerospace. Picture from Bournemouth Echo, reproduced with permission.
John Taylor, managing director of Beagle Aerospace. Picture from Bournemouth Echo, reproduced with permission.

Visible capabilities
Raising the profile of the company involves making yourself heard and seen. Beagle has taken a proactive approach, and recent events attended include the Aero Engineering show at the NEC in October, the International armoured vehicle show at Excel in London, the Southern Manufacturing show in February and JEC Composites show in Paris.

Taylor defends the cost of running such shows: “Although it’s expensive, we’re making people aware of what our capability is. Although people know the Beagle name, no one actually knows what we’re doing. It generates an awful lot of interest.” “It’s not just about showing people the present capability, but what the future capability is going to be,” he added.

Although Beagle deals with a lot of companies based in the UK, their focus on components mean they have customers as diverse as BAE, Rolls-Royce, Fokker and Bombadier and within the MRO Aerospace sector, KG Aircraft Components, British Airways & Virgin Airways. Some of the parts produced at the plant are distributed all over the world, so it’s a company with a sizeable export market. The continued emphasis is on the repairing and maintenance of structural and engine components for their customers.

Current projects
Beagle was a victim of the Strategic Defence and Security Review, and was hit reasonably hard. The company had to back fill existing orders for Harriers and the Nimrod aircraft.

Taylor said: “The Harrier was one of our key lines, so confirmation it was being shelved came as quite a shock and had a big impact. On the plus side, though, an outcome of the government review was the need for a range of composite components for a new hi-tech armoured vehicle. Technical capabilities at the plant made Beagle one of only three other companies that could provide the expertise needed.

“We looked at the requirement as a standalone project, and adopted a different, volume orientated, approach. So, we came up with a solution; we used existing site space for a dedicated production facility to do the work. We won that in the early part of this year, and we’ll be ready for production in the first week of August,” Taylor said.

Beagle has invested heavily in equipment to suit this project, as a way to further increase capabilities for the future. Taylor said: “We have invested heavily in production composites processing equipment to suit this project, including investments in automated pre-preg cutting equipment and laser projection systems for enhanced speed of ply positioning. This is in addition to a recent investment in new clean room facilities (Class 8, ISO 100,000) to meet NADCAP requirements and further enhancements to our recently purchased large (8.5m x3m) second autoclave.”

A pre-preg cutter replaces the need for a template when cutting composites, and therefore saves time and money. Also, as Mr Elford pointed out: “Even though this equipment is being used for a specific project, it means that we have the added capability for the rest of the market. We have spare capacity in the system that can be sold elsewhere.”

Looking up and ahead
In addition to the recent investments within the composites area the company has plans to acquire a small to medium sized machining facility. “The current facility is principally used for fabrication processes with a small number of machine components being manufactured. We want to significantly increase machining capability,” said Taylor.

Elford added: “The new machine shop will be used for small prismatic machining, cleats, brackets, attachments and a general range of aerospace components” While seeking to increase capability, Beagle has made changes to the way the business is run. John Taylor is a staunch believer in business excellence.

Working closely with the European Federation Quality Model (EFQM), a Brussels-based global not-for-profit membership foundation has allowed the company to provide a unique platform for organisations to learn from each other and improve performance. The pay offs from being a member are huge, according to the team at Beagle.

“We want to want to work with people who want to do a better job tomorrow than they have done today. We put a lot of time and effort into training and educating people in business excellence tools,” said Taylor. “We have had a really good response from that perspective. There has been an increase in the number of customers who are pleased with the new approach captured within the EFQM,” he added.

Learning to fly
Concerns are well established among British manufacturers about ageing skilled technicians and workers, and the government has pushed lightley for a larger number of people to opt out of a degree course and instead pursue a vocational occupation. Beagle is currently training four apprentices, and has plans to take on either six or seven additional apprentices this year, and then the same number every year after that.

“We have a very low turnover of staff here which is quite exceptional. A challenge that we face is an ageing workforce. We do have an apprenticeship programme and those on it are very successful,” said Taylor.

Apprentices at Beagle are able to train in a wide range of skill sets, from project engineering through to processing and product design. Elford believes the apprenticeships offered at Beagle are hugely beneficial: “I think one of the main drawing factors when it comes to apprenticeships at this company is the fact that there is such a wide range of skills to specialise in.”

Ethics and responsibilities
When I asked John and Andy about the company’s approach to environmental issues, sustainability and emissions, they expressed that it was an absolute key concern for them, largely because of the close relationship with the community. As with any manufacturer, waste material can sometimes be quite bulky and moves have been made over the past 12 months to reduce waste and implement recycling programmes.

“A lot of the composites we use are consolidated in vacuum bags, so instead of throwing away the bags we have invested quite heavily in re-usable bags. It’s things like this that have a really big impact in terms of waste,” said Andy Elford.

In late December 2010, all the lighting in the plant in Christchurch was replaced with low energy photocell controlled lighting, so if there’s no movement the lights switch off. It’s initiatives like these that first of all reduce energy use, but for Taylor it is primarily because it makes for better corporate social responsibility.

Beagle is a company that is determined to widen its capabilities, this much is clear. But while expanding and taking on new and more challenging projects, it stays true to corporate social responsibility, maintains links with the community, and views emissions, waste and environmentalism as priorities.