Tooling manufacturers offer insight into this often overlooked, but no less important, aspect of aviation ground support, writes Michelle Garetson
The word tooling in aviation has more than one definition. It can be used to describe Ground Support Equipment, which can include towbars, jacks, engine cradles, and dollies. Or, it can be used to describe Maintenance Tools, which are used for the aircraft manufacturer's varied makes and models and involves special tools specific to aircraft type right the way down to hand tools to be used on engines and airframes. Another type of tooling is that equipment used for aircraft assembly lines - from platform systems to transport trailers to testing equipment.
Whichever definition is used, a common thread for all aspects of aircraft tooling is that if the tooling is doing its job correctly, it is invisible.
Hydro, founded in 1965, is a leading manufacturer of aircraft ground support equipment and maintenance tooling with over 165 employees and over 400 customers, worldwide and reports an annual turnover of more than US$25 million. With headquarters in Germany and a subsidiary in Seattle, USA, the company has obtained license agreements or relationships with all major aircraft manufacturers in the aviation industry: Airbus, Boeing, McDonnell Douglas, Dornier, Embraer, and Canadair. Hydro's UK Manager, Graham Cornwall, offers what it takes to become licensed or approved for tooling by a manufacturer and stresses that a company needs to have ISO qualification in place.
"In Hydro's case, we're ISO certified, which means you've got in place all the necessary legislation, working manuals, and working practices," Cornwall explains. "Then, you are audited by a number of companies who you are under supply to and who you are working with. We're audited by Boeing and Airbus and Dornier." He adds, "When you get into the other side of the business where you're selling to people, you are also audited by the airlines and aircraft manufacturers." Hydro supplies direct to the aircraft manufacturers and says it's a fairly stringent business from its perspective. Both Boeing and Airbus have licensees, but have a very different approach to the market regarding the number of licensees and control of the system."
Dedienne Corporation, which began six years ago in France and opened a facility in England, China, and Miami, USA in 2001; is ISO certified, and also has licenses with both Airbus, Boeing, Snecma Services CFMI and have just announced that they will be the sales representative for Snecma Services for the CFMI engine tools for all of the Americas. Dedienne Aerospace division has approximately 250 employees worldwide. Karel Volot is President for Dedienne Corporation-USA and agrees that there are differences in working with Airbus and Boeing.
"Airbus has given 3 licenses, Boeing, 19. They come often to audit us. It's for our protection as well to ensure that we follow the requirements exactly. We work very hard to keep our license."
Aircraft Tool & Maintenance Equipment (ATME) was founded by Michael H. Shelton in California in 1992 and became a licensee of Boeing and McDonnell Douglas. In 1999, ATME moved to Las Vegas and two years later, became an approved vendor to General Electric A/C Engines. In 2000, ATME completed improvements including a machine shop, assembly area, quality assurance lab, shipping and receiving rooms, and ample area for future growth. Founder Mike Shelton passed away in July 2001 and his wife, Dorothy Shelton, assumed the role of President and CEO. ATME maintains a wide array of Electronic GSE for the PMEL system for GE and Boeing and McDonnell Douglas tooling. ATME is a licensed manufacturer of Boeing and McDonnell Douglas Electronic Ground Support Equipment and an approved manufacturer for GEAE Support Equipment. They are a quality audited and approved or licensed vendor with Boeing, GE Structured Services, Lockheed Martin and Pratt & Whitney.
Aircraft manufacturers are not the only customers needing tooling products. Hydro, Dedienne and ATME serve the airlines and maintenance centers.
"Our main customer is the airlines, which we sell to direct - and also to the maintenance centers," says Volot. "Today, you have more and more airlines who contract their maintenance. Small airlines don't do much maintenance, possibly 'A' checks. We provide to all of the maintenance centers. They want towbars, testing services, jacks, etc."
Hydro's customers are aircraft manufacturers, airlines, maintenance bases, ground handling agents and airport authorities worldwide and explains that in Europe and America, most often it's the airlines and the maintenance bases that have the tooling. In Asia, some of the airport authorities will also have certain degrees of tooling - jacks and towbars for moving aircraft and that sort of thing rather than the individual companies. Although, it's changed now that the companies themselves are buying the tooling as well. As a company, Hydro calls on all of these groups and boasts a customer base of approximately 600 companies - virtually any airline flying and any maintenance base in the world.
"Every aircraft has its own list of tooling," says Hydro. "Whilst there is some commonality, like for instance on the B737 series, there will be some commonality between the 100 series and the 200 series, there will also be large quantities of tooling that will not be common across the entire range. The 737 aircraft, there is now up to the 800 series, so 8 models, so there's really 8 separate lots of tooling required."
ATME's Shelton says that their biggest amount of business comes from contractors who refer the electrical/electronic part of an order to the company. ATME builds equipment and products for the military and aerospace industry as well as for major airlines and airline maintenance facilities. ATME also performs testing and calibration services.
Dedienne provides the automatic Triple Jack for the A340-600 and will provide the Triple Jack and GSE products for the new Airbus A380 scheduled for 2005.
"In a year's time," says Volot, "the jacks have to be up and working and through with testing. We have to build a new test bench because these triple jacks have to be bigger than others to accommodate the larger aircraft."
Volot explains that the number of tooling products available is in the thousands. One aircraft type has many tools associated with it. "In our business, there are two sides to tooling - the Ground Support Equipment - the towbar, the cradle for the engine, the triple jacks, the axle jacks - everything that goes on the ground. The other, you have a tooling license for the special tools for aircraft right down to the wrenches, extractors, slings -that are specific to the aircraft."
Something that crops up in many industries, aviation included, is what's known as a "gray market," which involves suspect or unapproved suppliers and products. Price tends to be the main selling point for these vendors, but if an incident occurs that can be attributed to a gray market supplied item, these companies could possibly just disappear, leaving the end user with the problem.
"Airlines take a big risk when buying these items. The FAA is beginning to take a look at everything in the workshop for an aircraft - from the tool to the parts that will be put on the aircraft to the person who installs the parts," explains Volot.
Hydro offers that the added advantage of being an official licensed manufacturer is that those who are licensed have access to the computers at Boeing or Airbus, which means the customer is getting tools for the latest revision drawings, and these tools will be made of the right material. Drawings within Airbus or Boeing or any of the other companies literally specify what needs to be made and also the materials that need to be used.
"We know this element exists," says Shelton, "but we are not too affected by it as we are one of only four companies in the world that manufactures our type of products. We deal direct with the manufacturer, such as Boeing, so there isn't really the opportunity for a gray market supplier to try and pass off a look-alike product on the customer."
Although Hydro and Dedienne design and manufacture thousands of products, certain items rise up to the top for each company.
For Hydro, the stars are its unique Electronic Jacking and Leveling (EJAL) System and the Landing Gear Equipment, which is used for the removal, installation, and transportation of nose and main landing gears for all commercial aircraft.
Dedienne's Triple Jack Product for the new Airbus A380 aircraft will keep the company busy with its development and testing. Also, the new license for all of the Snecma Services for the CFMI engines - a cooperative effort between GE and Snecma - will have Dedienne working hard to keep pace with the engine manufacturers.
Volot explains that when an aircraft is purchased, the blueprints are part of the deal, but the blueprints will be valid only on the purchase date.
"Everyday, when we manufacture a tool, we have to check that the blueprint (technical drawings) have is the latest revision. There are so many revisions and if the tool is not made to the latest revision, it could possibly break a part on the aircraft. This can cause the customer a lot of money and can affect safety procedures. For example, Airbus and Boeing, if they find out that some tools are not good or efficient over a period of time, they do a revision on the tooling specification and modify the tools."
He adds, "In the past, the FAA didn't look at the
tooling aspect and GSE. Now, with all of the questions of quality and security,
the FAA, as well as the JAA in Europe, are taking a harder look at tooling and
ground support equipment."
Hydro concurs to a point with respect to oversight from agencies regarding the gray market and suggests the FAA, JAA, and CAA get involved, but only on the surface. From a tooling point of view, all of those regulatory bodies have more important things that they believe they have to do to maintain the safety of the air traffic around the world.
Hydro and Dedienne have offered traceability on all company products from the very start. They feel this is very important for the customer and for them as a tooling manufacturer.
"We keep traceability of every tool we make," says Volot. "Tomorrow, or even years later, if a customer asks us about a tool, we have traceability on the materials used, the manufacturer, and who made the tool, the control papers - all of this is in the file. So if there is a problem with the tool, the customer can come back to you and find out why there is a problem. From the very beginning, we have all of the files."
Hydro's Cornwall adds, "We have traceability right throughout - that's one of the criteria within the ISO accreditation. We can also guarantee as a licensed manufacturer as we are, that the customer is getting the latest issue or upgrades to the drawings. Many times, the customer will give us a part number and when we interrogate the system, it's been superceded. We then offer him the latest issue drawing. But unless you have access to all the files within either Airbus or Boeing or other manufacturer, then you wouldn't know if you had the latest issue or not."
Dedienne and ATME perform calibration and testing services for customers. Certificates for equipment testing and calibration services are also provided to customers for quality assurance.
"We provide a test certificate if the tool requires a test," says Volot. "For all of the tools, we provide quality certification with part number, serial number, and designation if tool is brand-new or second-hand. Or, if a company sends us a tool to be calibrated, we certify the tool after calibration."
Challenges and Trends
Aside from keeping an eye out for gray market vendors, a challenge as Hydro sees it is that the tooling aspect of aviation gets forgotten from time to time.
"What happens more often than we'd care to have happen is that customers buy the aircraft and the aircraft is due for delivery, the maintenance tooling tends to be one of the last things they look at," says Cornwall. "This means deliveries are sometimes unachievable. The worst scenario is that the aircraft is there and they've forgotten an item or two and then there's a huge panic and it's 'beg, borrow, or steal' to get the tool. That's one of the big problems. Hydro, to an extent, is prepared to help by maintaining a huge stock of tools."
He goes on to explain that the market is more buoyant when there is new aircraft coming into services, because obviously, new aircraft requires new tooling. Also, if an end-user is modifying or upgrading its fleet - purchasing a fleet or aircraft which he currently isn't flying, there is a requirement for him to buy all new tooling.
"We are now entering a time where there are a number of new aircraft coming into service in the next 10 years. (Boeing and Airbus)," he adds. "The future is fairly challenging because the aircraft are getting larger as in the case of the Airbus 380, as well as the new Boeing model, but there will be new tooling requirements for those models. But, neither of them are happening 'tomorrow,' although we are working on them now. But as far as selling it [tooling], we're not going to have that for a while."
When asked about the new low budget carriers and if that will have any affect on tooling products, Hydro's response is, "Not really. The thing with the new carriers at the moment is that they're running fairly new aircraft and once they initially buy the tooling, there's no need for anything until they come up for heavy maintenance and then, they will probably contract that out instead of doing it themselves.
Dedienne's Volot adds, "Worldwide events affect the economy and affect us. All the major airlines are down. JetBlue and Southwest are the only ones making a profit. Our best resource for new business is our salespeople. For me, this is the best way to sell our products - face to face with customers. We want our people to speak the customer's language to meet their needs."
Hydro maintains that new products are customer-driven to some degree and if someone suggests "Why can't we do this? then the company will consider it and then talk to the customer. Hydro has just developed a brand new concept in jacks and it's in final testing stages with several end users and will be introduced into the market.
ATME's Shelton says, "Our biggest challenge right now is what is happening in the industry. The airlines have had to take on some large expenses recently, in an economy that is very tight. Also, we see equipment coming back for repair that is 20 years old and the technology is fast becoming obsolete, making it difficult to locate the components, such as resistors and connectors for this equipment."
Still, she is optimistic about the cyclical nature of aviation, "The industry will adjust, it always does, and we will also adjust, as we have for the last 10 years."
Z.A. du Casque II 17, rue Aristide Bergs
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HYDRO USA, CO
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Tel.: +253 876 2100
Fax: +253 876 2110