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A high-flier in the making

The aerospace industry has undergone tremendous structural and economic changes over the past few decades.

india Updated: Dec 28, 2010 23:08 IST
Ashok Baweja

The aerospace industry has undergone tremendous structural and economic changes over the past few decades. The commercial aerospace sector has witnessed a reduction in revenue per passenger mile, whereas the costs have continued to move upwards. This has led to an increased focus on technological innovation and cost competitiveness. Companies in the aerospace industry spend billions of dollars every year to ensure that their technology infrastructure remains current and reflects the latest developments in aviation technology.

India is certainly a fast growing market for the commercial aviation industry. There will be significant investments by Indian operators and corresponding offset obligations. This represents a business opportunity for Indian players both in the manufacturing and services space that is hard to ignore. The government policy on offsets will give a boost to this sector in India. The Indian economy is growing at 8 to 10% every year. This rate is expected to translate into air traffic growth over the next 20 years. The number of potential airfields and the economic growth rates are expected to translate into a demand for over 1,200 aircraft in India, of which 240 are expected to be in the regional category.

Combining the projected military and paramilitary requirements, the total Indian requirement is projected as 400. Cashing in on the boom in the civil aviation sector and recognising the need for the establishment of Regional Transport Aircraft (RTA), the Central government assigned the project to National Aeronautical Laboratories (NAL) to meet the national aspiration of building a commercial aircraft. The chemistry is just right with a substantial Indian demand for an RTA, knowledge and capabilities build-up in light fixed wing and rotor wing craft, the technological and economic benefits, the aspirations to be a global player, along with policy makers citing Brazil’s Embraer as an example to be emulated. If successfully implemented, significant foreign sales could also be expected apart from the national market. Private sector companies such as HCL Technologies have acquired capabilities in aerospace engineering and manufacturing to a great extent. An interesting aspect of this capability build-up is that Indian companies have supported the two biggest commercial aircraft programmes in history — A380 and Boeing 787 — with services like structural and mechanical engineering, embedded systems software development, hardware engineering, verification and validation and Information Technology including development simulation tools and design and analysis tools.

The RTA will be in the 22-tonne class, a civil commercial platform with over a billion dollars worth of investments riding on it.A civil aircraft in the 22-tonne class has not been made in this country and two other programmes on the anvil — the 60-tonne Multi Role Transport Aircraft and the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft — are being done in partnership with the Russians, already experienced players in these categories. Thus, to achieve success in this project, the RTA will need to develop within the stated time frame of six years; acquire certification by Indian and foreign agencies; feature all the stated technologies and design targets to give it a competitive edge against well-entrenched players such as Embraer, Bombardier, ATR and relatively new entrants like the Russian Super Jet, Chinese ARJ 21 and Mitsubishi.

Being on its own, the Indian RTA would call for an exceptionally high order of programme management skills, flexibility in selection decisions of equipment and partners and much more. Embraer is a valuable case study to be emulated if aspirations, design targets, look, finishes, costs, support, market and producability are to be achieved.

However, the private sector players who have gained considerable experience in engineering have limited manufacturing expertise of this scale. Acquiring necessary manufacturing skills to attract top foreign airlines’ attention is only the first step and perhaps the easiest. Learning the fine art of integrating fuselage assemblies, engines, avionics and other components efficiently and cost effectively is a far bigger one. Even the experts can stumble in assembly — witness Boeing’s 787 and Airbus’s woes. But surmounting the third barrier — establishing a service culture in which airlines have confidence — takes time. There is constant innovation in services as also in design and materials. And yet challenges have to be undertaken.

It remains to be seen whether some of the leading players will involve themselves in NAL’s RTA as they did in Embraer’s programmes to establish a regional hold.

Ashok Baweja is senior technology adviser, HCL Technologies and ex-chairman, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited The views expressed by the author are personal.