Aircraft seating has notoriously high barriers to entry, so when two years ago a new name emerged at Aircraft Interiors in Hamburg, complete with a prize 60,000-unit launch order from one of the fastest-growing carriers in Asia, people sat up and took notice. Mirus Aircraft Seating marked its debut at the show by announcing that its newly approved Hawk seat would be factory installed on AirAsia’s on-order A320neos as well as retrofitted to some of its A320ceos – a total of 312 aircraft.
The UK firm followed that at last year’s event with an agreement to supply a long-range version of the product on sister airline AirAsia X’s A330s and on-order A330neos. Altogether, it gave the start-up, which had opened its factory near Norwich only in June 2015, a backlog of some 100,000 seats to be delivered over 10 years. The first A320 seats were shipped to the Malaysian carrier at the end of the year and are now flying.
So how did a business that did not even have its own premises this time three years ago end up with one of the most lucrative recent fleet deals?
The story begins in 2011, when Mirus founder and managing director Phil Hall, who had a background in motor racing engineering, met AirAsia chief executive Tony Fernandes. They did not know each other well, but their paths had crossed a year or two earlier when the Malaysian entrepreneur was dabbling in Formula 1 with the Caterham brand.
Hall had been running a consultancy along with fellow Mirus director Ben McGuire since quitting as an engineer with Toyota’s UK-based motor racing subsidiary in 2007. He and McGuire, who had a background in automotive production, had been visiting Aircraft Interiors since 2009 convinced that there was a way “to apply F1 know-how into diverse industries”, including aircraft seating, a sector dominated by a handful of large suppliers in Europe and the USA.
“It was all about lightweight structures – composites, but also aluminium and integrating them in hybrid structures too,” he says. “We had knowledge of how materials perform under extreme loading conditions after spending years crashing F1 cars into walls with zero occupancy damage. We knew a lot about testing and felt we could apply that knowledge to economy seating. We went to Hamburg and the seed grew from there.”
The pair discussed their ideas with Fernandes. “Initially we had been offering our services as a consultancy, but Tony said: ‘Why don’t we do this ourselves?’. He invited us to come out to talk to his team at AirAsia,” recalls Hall. “Tony is always looking for value and saw this as a way of doing something innovative. He told us: ‘Design a product that will add value to our operations and customer experience and we will back you.’”
Having witnessed several would-be new players show up at AIX with an exciting concept but struggle to make the step-up to industrial production, Hall knew there was more to breaking into the market than coming up with a novel idea – even one backed by one of the world’s biggest airline names. “I’d seen from Hamburg start-ups come and go with some frequency. It’s a conservative industry,” he says.
Mirus faced those same challenges. The new business had to design and build a prototype, find and fit out premises, recruit suppliers and specialist staff, and achieve Airbus approval and product certification. On top of all this it had to secure at least three years of finance to keep the wheels turning before the first revenues from the launch customer arrived.
Fortunately, Fernandes helped. “Tony helped me set up meetings with Airbus, who have been very supportive,” says Hall. “He introduced me to financial people. His team at AirAsia helped me understand what they wanted. There is no way we could have done all this without this sort of commitment.”
Fernandes admitted to Hall that AirAsia had been having “issues” with its seats for 15 years. He was impressed that Hall had come up with a seat that minimised moving parts and was 40% lighter than many on the market, thanks to a composite frame and slim backrest. Crucial to the new company’s proposition was also a concept for a lean, “automotive-style” production set-up, where most parts would be sourced from a local, largely motor industry supply chain and assembled in a series of “cells”.
In late 2014, with start-up finance secured with the promise of a contract from AirAsia, Hall and McGuire found a building on an industrial estate by the picturesque Norfolk village of Hingham – once occupied by Toyota’s racing unit – and began refining the product, sourcing suppliers and recruiting staff. Although deep in farming country the area is rich in specialist engineering heritage: car maker Lotus is based nearby and KLM has an engineering base at Norwich Airport.
With around 50 employees on board, split roughly between engineering, administrative and assembly, Mirus began series production in late 2017. The factory as it stands has an annual capacity of 40,000 units, with Hall expecting AirAsia to make up about 20-25% of total production if the rest of the medium-term business plan comes together.
That will only happen, he concedes, if the company meets its promises to its first customer in terms of on-time delivery and quality. “We’re a significant way through the gates,” says Hall. “Tony has opened the doors for us with Airbus and we’ve had some very good feeback, but you still have to demonstrate performance and capability. If we don’t deliver with AirAsia that will be our reputation gone.”
Hall also knows he has to convince further airlines to come on board and to maintain the momentum on new product development. To that end, Mirus last year showcased its Vision 2030 concept – an all-carbon-fibre design weighing just 3.8kg with just eight parts, touted as “the lightest, simplest seat ever”. Although not capable of certification under current rules, it was intended to reinforce Mirus’s image as an innovator, inspired by its automotive racing expertise.
In terms of new customers, Hall says that after the efforts of bringing the Hawk seat to certification and production, there is now a “refocus” on sales, with aerospace-experienced staff joining. The retrofit market – selling directly to maintenance, repair and overhaul organisations or lessors, and based on much smaller volumes per contract – may be an “easier route”. Mirus’s nimble production set-up, he says, means products could be “out the door” in 10-12 weeks of any order being placed.
With deliveries to its launch customer now under way, the company has begun focusing on aftersales, establishing Mirus Aircraft Seating Malaysia as a service centre for AirAsia and future customers in the region. Eventually, Mirus hopes to develop its Malaysian unit as a “duplicate” production facility, which would “improve lead times and lower costs”.
Mirus has also opted for a largely UK supply base rather than be tempted to lower-cost labour markets. The reason, he says, is the capability of local automotive manufacturers and the need to ensure quality and supply.
“We have invested more than a seat company would traditionally in our supply chain, because we are only as strong as the suppliers below us,” he says. “Automotive is usually about volume and we are not a Jaguar Land Rover, but for them it’s a diversification into aerospace.”
Hall says that compared with aircraft seating, his former world of Formula 1 is easy: “Like this business, it was all about incremental improvements, but while time was always a challenge, money wasn’t,” he says.
However, he believes Mirus is now well on its way. “The messaging we are getting back from the market is that there is clearly space for a business like ours on a product level, but also on a service and customer engagement level,” he says. “We understand what our potential customers are looking for.”
Hall also knows that he and his colleagues cannot sit back on the success of securing the AirAsia work and will have to continue “driving the company forward” by designing a “Hawk 2” as well getting at least one all-new offering to market in the next few years.
“Standing still in this business is going backwards. We can’t take our foot off the pedal,” he says. “I have a whole lot of stuff lined up in my ideas book.”
Where does he see the company in five years? “Still here I hope,” he jokes. “But I would like to think we would have established the Mirus brand as a go-to seat company that will listen, react and deliver on its promises, continue to embrace the spirit of innovation, stay true to our lean, agile DNA, grow our volume and product portfolio, and become a mainstay of the industry that is not afraid to challenge the norm.”
Source: Flight Daily News