When Abu Dhabi’s state investment company Mubadala Aerospace announced in 2008 it was establishing a world-class composites aerostructures facility in Al Ain – an oasis town with no aviation heritage other than a sleepy airport – sceptics thought it an ambition too far, even for a wealthy emirate with big plans to diversify its economy from oil and gas. Abu Dhabi, however, does not do things half-heartedly.
Just three and a half years after the bulldozers rolled away from the 21,600m2 (232,500ft2) plant, Strata is employing 400 direct staff and 200 contractors and delivering 40 to 50 shipsets of empennage sections a month for Airbus, Boeing and ATR aircraft, under 10 different work packages. Its chief executive, Badr Al-Olama, says Strata is setting its sights on being one of the industry’s top three aerostructures players by 2020, with subsidiaries or joint ventures in other parts of the world.
As well as a contract with Austrian aerostructures manufacturer FACC to build Airbus A330 track fairings, Strata has tier-one contracts with both Boeing – building vertical fin ribs for the 777 and 787 – and now Airbus, providing ailerons for the A330. However, Al-Olama is keen to dispel suggestions that Strata’s rapid growth is simply the result of offset agreements by Boeing and Airbus in return for orders from state carrier Etihad.
Although Strata got its start that way, it has very quickly had to stand on its own feet. It opted to specialise in composites, says Al-Olama, because “metalics is very competitive. Lots of countries in the east can do it cheaper”. The company also chose tail structures, rather than diversify into other parts of the aircraft. “If you go into too many areas you lose that focus and experience. We want [the] industry to think Strata when they think of empennages,” he says.
Al-Olama describes as a “breakthrough” a deal last year from Belgium’s Sabca – an A350 risk-sharing partner – to supply flap support structures and fairings; it is the first work package that Strata has bid for and won. “There were 10 to 15 suppliers competing for that work,” says Al-Olama, a graduate of Harvard Law School and one of a generation of young, Western-educated Emiratis taking over from expats as the driving forces behind the United Arab Emirates’ new industries.
Another early key decision was to make Strata a manufacturing company, rather than a design house. It would have been relatively easy to become an engineering consultancy, with hundreds of expats sitting at computers in an office block carrying out work for third parties. But this would not have created the immediate spin-off benefits the government wanted. “Part of our mission is to contribute to the diversification of the Abu Dhabi economy,” says Al-Olama.
Included in this strategy is a push to create jobs for Emiratis – not just high-flying executives, but on the shop floor. A glimpse at the assembly stations might confirm, and also dispel, perceptions of Emirati society. One shift is made up almost exclusively of local women wearing hijabs; another of expat males – many from the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. While this might seem like a manifestation of the UAE’s traditional culture, it is breaking social mores in conservative Al Ain.
Many of the young women carrying out intricate work on aircraft panels would previously have been employed in government departments or spent their days at home.
Finding local staff has not been difficult. “When we started we assumed about 1% of our workforce would have been Emiratis. But three years on, we have 35% Emiratis, and this will reach 50% soon,” says Al-Olama. “We have 160 Emiratis being trained at the moment – 95% of them women.”
Strata is part of a wider project by Abu Dhabi to create “a diverse, sustainable, high-tech and knowledge-intensive economy for Emirati nationals” by 2030. Strata will sit as the anchor tenant of a 10 miles2 (25km2) “aerospace hub” next to Al Ain airport. This will consist of aviation-related enterprises, from maintenance, repair and overhaul facilities to a local supply chain of suppliers to Strata, helping to transform Al Ain from desert backwater to thriving industrial city.
Al-Olama’s vision for Strata sees it not only expanding its capabilities into design, tooling, sourcing material and testing – “an end to end solution on empennage and related parts” – but also establishing “a global footprint”. By 2020, he says, as well as a second composites plant in Al Ain, Strata will have a “footprint in the USA and Europe” and “an alliance on partnership” on metalics. In terms of scale, Al-Olama believes Strata can be one of the world’s top three suppliers of aerostructures.
Al-Olama says “the difficult part” will be expanding the business without losing focus on existing contracts. Engineers, too, he says, “don’t grow on trees, so moving up the capability chain can be challenging”. However, three years after delivering its first part, Strata remains the only aerostructures player “in the east” manufacturing primary structures for Airbus and Boeing. It is also happy now to welcome potential customers through its doors.
“When we started, people were sceptical,” admits Al-Olama, who replaced Strata’s first chief executive, Ross Bradley, last year after a stint as deputy chief executive. “What we have tried to do is turn that scepticism into showing them something where companies like Boeing and Airbus have said: ‘Wow, we are happy to give you our work packages.’
"People assume it has all come out of the Etihad deal as offset, but our recent work has been won through competition.”