Safran positioned for growth in onboard electrical systems

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No-one should be surprised that United Technologies, the parent company of Pratt & Whitney, Sikorsky and Hamilton Sundstrand, redrew the aerospace industry competitive landscape when it bought Goodrich in 2012 for $18 billion. The largest deal of its kind in aerospace industry history could hardly have gone down without repercussions, and naturally many rivals were keen to benefit from the anti-trust and financial fallout.

Indeed, to help pay for the acquisition, UTC looked to raise $3 billion by selling off a number of businesses, including such storied names as Rocketdyne (bought by GenCorp/Aerojet for $550 million). And US and European competition authorities demanded that it sell off some others, including Goodrich’s pump and engine control systems business (sold to Triumph Group) and Goodrich Electric Power Systems (GEPS), sold to Safran for $400 million in March 2013.

The GEPS sale, it turns out, was far more significant than it appeared at the time. When the 2013 Paris air show rolled around three months later, Safran was talking about consolidating its three three electrical businesses – Labinal (wiring systems), Safran Power (onboard distribution) and GEPS – into a single unit.

Now, Safran has got 2014 off to a noteworthy start. At $270 million, its purchase of Eaton’s Aerospace Power Distribution Management Solutions and Integrated Cockpit Solutions businesses is not large enough to rank among the bigger events in aerospace mergers and acquisitions, but it is one of the industry’s most significant recent deals.

Coming just a couple of weeks after its formal consolidation of its power systems businesses under the Labinal banner, the Eaton acquisition is being billed as the final big piece in a Safran bid to play a dominant role in the conceptualisation, design and realisation of coming generations of “more electric” aircraft. Sitting within Safran’s aircraft equipment division and headed by chairman and chief executive Alain Sauret, Labinal Power Systems employs some 12,000 people in 45 locations.

As Jean-Pierre Cojan – appointed executive vice-president "in charge of strategy and transformation" in a May 2013 Safran management reshuffle – tells Flightglobal, the Eaton deal is “intimately linked” to Safran’s strategic vision. By completing the “panel of technologies” needed to provide a comprehensive aircraft electrical systems capability, Safran becomes one of only two companies in the world able to make that claim.

The other, notes Cojan, is UTC Aerospace Systems – formerly known as Hamilton Sundstrand – which underscored its mastery of onboard electrics by winning all three systems packages offered by Boeing for its 787 programme.

Typically, he says, airframers will probably choose not to entrust an entire programme’s electrical systems engineering and supply to a single entity. But the 787 example, in which three separate contracts went to divisions of one company, highlights the value of being able to grapple with the intricacies of primary and back-up power generation, high- and low-power distribution networks, transformers, routing and system monitoring.

The newest aircraft, says Cojan, have the complexity of an electric utility and, as airliners increasingly become designed around electric, rather than hydraulic systems, the demand for sophisticated electrical power management is only going to become more intense. Hence, the building of a comprehensive electrical systems capability in what is now the Labinal business represents a long-term strategy for Safran.

Getting to this stage involved a combination of ground-up research and acquisition. Building on the existing Labinal wiring business, Safran opted to create its own power electronics and electrical actuation technologies, capabilities demonstrated by its development of the world’s first electrically activated thrust reverser, for the A380, and the electric brake actuation system employed on the 787. Further research and technology activity created, in-house, advanced electric motor systems.

Then, says Cojan, a string of acquisitions filled gaps – including in power generation, which is GEPS’s expertise, along with power network management.

The importance of the Eaton business just acquired is that it is one of very few in the world that can design switches handling the biggest electric loads found on aircraft. When the company came onto the market, says Cojan, Safran made the decision to buy in that capability rather than develop it from scratch.


Most actuation today, he notes, is still hydraulic. The A380, for example, features electrically actuated flaps and the Safran-designed thrust reverser, but has hydraulic brakes. And while the 787 pioneered electrically actuated brakes, it still flies on hydraulic flaps. In 15 or 20 years, Cojan expects, most systems will have gone to electric actuation – but hydraulics won’t disappear any time soon.

Twenty years from now, for example, he expects landing gear actuation to be the biggest single consumer on an aircraft, demanding far more power than any other function. But to design an efficient electric power system able to handle both normal loads and a large power spike for maybe a minute per flight is no small engineering challenge. Whether this particular function remains hydraulic – possibly just locally, with fluid pressure built up by electric pumps – or goes fully electric, remains to be seen.

What is clear, though, is that the goal is to optimise the system. And that is best achieved, says Cojan, by a company that understands power generation, distribution and end use.

In the coming years, there will be some opportunities to demonstrate such a capability on some new business jet programmes, which will be more electric than the existing fleet. But ultimately, he says, the end game of this technology strategy is to position Safran for a leading role in the middle of the next decade, when airframers gear up to launch the next generation of narrowbody airliners, to replace the A320neo and 737 Max.

Meanwhile, he adds, Safran knows about patience. After all, when it partnered with GE to launch the CFM56 turbofan in the 1970s, a decade passed before it became clear that this powerplant would be the best-selling engine ever.