How To Make a Business Fly with Haas...
UK-based SA Group has carved a niche in the aviation maintenance field. Its success depends on specialist knowledge, diversification, and a willingness to invest in people and technology, including Haas CNC machines.
When Specialist Aviation (now SA Group) started in 1995, it specialised in sourcing spare parts for the BAE 146 Regional Jet (RJ). “I used to work in BAEs purchasing department,” explains Managing Director Duncan Hammond, “so I have contacts around the world. I know who is in the market for parts, and more importantly, who has aircraft leases expiring. That matters, because when contracts end, there are often spare parts left over for sale.
“We therefore provide a valuable service for aircraft companies who can’t afford to deal with numerous suppliers. We consolidate their orders, and deliver the parts wherever they need them,” says Duncan, “whether to aircraft grounded at airports because of a fault, or in maintenance for their C-check (which is like an MOT). Our clients have included Flybe in Exeter, Marshalls in Cambridge, and British Aerospace (which became BAE Systems in 1999).
“It was partly thanks to BAE that we moved into manufacturing. We supplied spare parts for their ground support equipment, but we didn’t make anything in house,” Duncan says. “However, we had the opportunity to acquire a local company called Bowman and Sanderson (B&S), who made the parts that BAE needed, so we bought their stock, and took on their employees and machinery. We asked BAE to audit the company and give it manufacturing clearance. It was then that we started getting asked to quote for 5-axis work, and I discovered the benefits of Haas CNC machines.”
Opportunity in diversity
By his own admission, Duncan “knew nothing about machining.” However, the B&S deal had equipped SA with more than 20 very skilled employees, including two people who could operate CNC machines. “B&S had two CNC machines, and their systems were ISO approved, with very good traceability, which is what BAE wanted. So B&S did the manufacturing, and SA did the project management, including handling the finishing process and the paperwork. This was a good way to diversify, because we could start making spares for lots of different clients and airframes &ndash we were no longer restricted to servicing the 146 RJs.
“However,” Duncan adds, “I knew we couldn’t compete just doing basic machining work. This was clear from the major machinery auctions at the time, where all I kept seeing were the same old machines we were already running. Very rarely did I see any modern 5-axis machines. That convinced me that, to compete, we needed to go as cutting-edge as we could afford. Thankfully, it turned out that two of our employees knew the local Haas salesperson.
“He was great. He came to see me, and arranged for me to visit a customer in Birmingham who had a 5-axis machine.
“That customer was very helpful. In particular, he gave me valuable advice on the CAD/CAM package to use &ndash DELCAM. Apparently, his team had tried two or three others, but couldn’t get on with them, so that was good to know. He also said that, although they’d had a couple of issues with the machines &ndash mainly things they had done wrong &ndash Haas had sorted them out very quickly. In fact,” Duncan notes, “he couldn’t say enough good things about Haas.”
Investing for the future
“Naturally, we got competitive quotes from other machine tool suppliers, but the Haas machines turned out to be quite exceptional value for money &ndash and the service was excellent. So we bought our first Haas 5-axis in 2009, and haven’t looked back. That’s not to say we didn’t go through a massive learning curve with the software and the machines in our first year, but our CNC programmer went on the DELCAM and Haas training courses and just picked it up. It was an investment that paid off, because one of our guys had won some work from the Force India F1 team (formally Jordan F1). They needed some help, and we were able to step in and make a few components for them.
“The second year was a very different story,” Duncan says. “We did some 50 to 60 jobs in a quarter of the time we just ploughed through them. These were still mould-tool components, but we thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Since then, we have really strengthened our skills set. We’ve worked on plastic injection mould tooling, aluminium components for aerospace clients, and titanium pieces for Force India, which they use in the composite parts for the front of their cars. We are also experimenting with honeycomb machining, which is very difficult to hold securely. We freeze the part in ice, which helps to preserve the thin walls of the honeycomb while it’s being machined. The ice melts very quickly, so we have a matter of minutes to take the cuts.
“We mainly use the 3-axis capabilities on the Haas machines for our aviation industry work, but they have also enabled us to offer new services to important customers like BAE and the MOD. For example, BAE doesn’t have models for many ground support components that they designed over 30 years ago, but we can use Haas CNC programs to reverse engineer and re-model them. We do the same for the MOD, with their obsolete stock. So we’ve gone from being a novice,” he says, “to being a very competent and confident manufacturer in just over two years.”
Skilled people, advanced technology, robust systems
“That diversification has been very important for our business, particularly in these difficult times. We now have two main business units &ndash manufacturing and spare parts &ndash and don’t rely solely on either one. We have continued to develop the spares business, and last year started buying old aircraft to tear down for parts. We broke down two aircraft in 2010, and are already on to our second for this year, with another ‘waiting in the wings.’
“As a result, we have been able to continue growing. We now employ 25 people we are working towards gaining SC21 supply chain approval from the Society of British Aerospace Companies, and last year we moved to new facilities. With more space and a pick-up in business, we have been able to invest in three more Haas machines: two VF-3SS 5-axis vertical machining centres, and a TM-1 Toolroom Mill. These complement our existing machines: a Haas VF-4SS, an SL-10 turning centre and three other mills. Our plan is to upgrade our old machines gradually, until we use only Haas.
“The increased speed, flexibility, and accuracy of the Haas machines will help us do more prototype work in the developing aerospace industry, which is very interesting, and has a lot in common with our F1 work. More importantly,” concludes Duncan, “our long-term investment in people and technology should help us achieve European Aviation Safety Agency recognition as a Part 21J Design Organisation, which would enable us to manufacture airworthy components. Now that would really give our business a lift.”
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