Switzerland: Sauter Bachmann - a little firm with big ambitions

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With just 140 employees, Sauter Bachmann - in the narrow mountain-locked canton of Glarus in eastern Switzerland - is a small business with big aerospace ambitions.

A family-owned engineering firm specialising in precision gears and gearboxes since 1922, Sauter Bachmann has seriously been in the aerospace sector only since the mid-1990s. As part of an offset arrangement, it began building components for some General Electric F404s - the engine powering Switzerland's Boeing F/A-18s.

It followed this in 2005 by competing for and winning a single-source risk-sharing partnership deal to manufacture the accessory gearbox for the F404's successor, the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet's F414.

"Aerospace has become our highest priority in the past 10 years," says Martin Sannwald, the company's head of aerospace. With its other main success coming from a contract won in 1999 with fellow Swiss company Pilatus for the landing flap actuation systems on the PC-12 corporate turboprop, aerospace now represents half Sauter Bachmann's revenues. The rest comes largely from transport and automotive.

Its other aerospace customers include Safran subsidiaries Snecma and Hispano-Suiza, Ruag and Moog, but Sannwald is confident of eventually securing high-value business with the other two big engine houses, Pratt & Whitney and Rolls-Royce. The latter has approved Sauter Bachmann as a supplier but has not yet awarded it any contracts. "The GE programme is a door-opener for us to get more business in high-speed gearing," he says.

The company, based in a modern facility in Netstal, offers a range of capabilities from internal gears, through worm and bevel gears to complete gearboxes, and handles most of its processes in-house, including heat treatment, gas nitriding and non-destructive testing.

Sannwald believes this all-inclusive service is one of Sauter Bachmann's advantages, together with its responsiveness. "Flexibility is our strength," he says. "We have few start-up costs on a new programme, no supply chain to manage. We are pretty fast. Even assembly and testing are not a problem."

Although its contract with GE on the F414 is risk-sharing, the US company owns the intellectual property to the gearbox design and it is manufactured under strict ITAR [International Traffic in Arms Regulations]. The Pilatus actuation system - engineered by Sauter Bachmann - is also a protected design, which Sauter Bachmann cannot adapt for anyone else.

However, these arrangements suit Sannwald, who is happy building to customers' specifications using Sauter Bachmann's wide range of capabilities. "Build-to-print is still our philosophy," he says. "We don't have a branded product or a catalogue."

One note of gloom for the company - which still has a third-generation Sauter as its chief executive and a fourth-generation Bachmann on the board - is the Swiss government's decision to delay its contest for new frontline fighters. "It's a disappointment," says Sannwald. "We would probably have been on the winning programme."

Of the three contenders, he says, the Saab Gripen uses GE's F414, while "our foot in the door with Safran" would have helped had Dassault's Rafale - powered by a Snecma engine - been victorious. Meanwhile, a Eurofighter Typhoon win could have secured Sauter Bachmann an in-road with Rolls-Royce, whose technology is largely behind the Eurojet EJ200 engine.