Nine years of plugging away in the retrofit market – convincing increasing numbers of airlines to opt for its “German-engineered” seating – paid off for ZIM Flugsitz when it signed its first buyer-furnished equipment deal in early March, with Airbus. The agreement to supply economy, premium economy and business class seats for the A320 family, A330 and A380, will see the family firm and regular AIX exhibitor admitted to the airframer’s catalogue this summer, becoming the latest start-up to break into the competitive line-fit aircraft seating sector.

It is a significant new chapter for ZIM, based in Markdorf in southern Germany, as it begins production in its new factory in Schwerin, 95km (60 miles) from Hamburg. The company, founded in 1995 by current husband-and-wife owners Peter and Angelika Zimmermann, had outgrown its original premises and wanted somewhere closer to Airbus’s final assembly site. While Schwerin will focus on economy seats, ZIM will run the two plants in parallel, each handling its own engineering and certification, and effectively doubling the company’s capacity.

“Having the two factories self-sufficient was something Airbus and Boeing asked us for to balance risk,” explains Peter Zimmermann. The location of the new, 7,500m2 site, in the former East Germany, will also make it easier to recruit staff, thanks to the proximity of the Hamburg aerospace cluster. Finding workers in the prosperous region around Lake Constance can be tricky because of low rates of unemployment and a higher cost of living, he says. As a result of the new factory, Zimmermann expects the workforce to rise from 160 to 240.

ZIM’s has been a remarkable success story since the Zimmermans, recent graduates in mechanical engineering, founded their engineering services company in 1995, working for Airbus and, predominantly, local manufacturer Fairchild Dornier. After seeing potential in the seating market and designing their first long-range economy product – the ZIMflexible – in 2009, they won early orders from the likes of Mahan Air and Thai Airways, followed in 2011 by customers such as Luxair, Blue 1 and Japan Airlines.

By 2012, the company had moved into business class seating and delivered its first design, the ZIMluxury, to Canadian carrier Air Transat. The rapid take-off of the seating business prompted the Zimmermanns to pull out of engineering services in 2013 to concentrate fully on seating, building a new assembly hall at Markdorf that year. In 2014, its first premium economy seat, the ZIMmagic, was launched, with orders from Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines. By the end of 2016, ZIM had supplied 65,000 seats into the retrofit market, and was turning over €48 million ($51 million).

Although Peter Zimmermann admits breaking into the seating sector as a new player was “not easy”, he says: “For us, it was the right time and right place to start this business. We had a lot of experience in engineering and certification, but the real key is that we are 100% family owned and believe that if you work really hard you can achieve a lot. It’s the engine that drives everything forward.” His other explanation for the achievements of the ZIM brand: “It’s a high-quality, German-engineered product.”

About 80% of ZIM’s output is economy seats, and its products are split roughly equally between Airbus and Boeing aircraft, and span single-aisles and widebodies. The latest deal with Airbus could skew that somewhat, although Zimmermann has a new goal. He wants 50% of revenues coming from the original equipment side. The two customer bases are very different. “The retrofit market is difficult from the planning side,” he says. “With line-fit you can plan two years in advance. With retrofit you can get six months’ notice. It is a small window in which to work.”

At AIX, ZIM – which has attended the show since 2009 and three years ago won a Crystal Cabin Award for its ZIMunique short-range economy seat – will present its latest product. The ZIMflexible NG is the latest version of its original economy class design. Zimmermann says the company has already taken commitments for more than 5,000 examples of the new seat from five customers in Europe and Asia. The launch of the latest product comes less than eight years after ZIM took its first order for about 3,500 versions of its predecessor.

Angelika Zimmermann attributes ZIM’s turbocharged performance to “the joy of innovation”. She says: “As engineers, my husband and I have developed an enthusiasm for technology that is reflected in or products. Our goal is to share this joy in innovation with the specialists working in our development and production departments and use it to offer our customers the very best.” With the new factory, the Zimmermanns are looking to their next phase of growth and possibly to the even longer long term: both their sons, currently studying at university, want to work for the business.

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Source: Flight Daily News