Ask people on the street what sector FTSE-listed Atkins operates in and, if they have heard of the company at all, then most will say civil engineering. Certainly it is the area of its business that Atkins is renowned for, with involvement at design consultancy level on major construction projects across the globe, including the venues for the London 2012 Olympics.
However, these days it boasts interests in such diverse sectors as energy, defence and environmental management - far removed from its traditional structural engineering roots. Aerospace engineering, too, is a growth area.
Atkins has long had an office a stone's throw from the Airbus and Rolls-Royce factories in Bristol. This proximity to the powerhouses of the UK aerospace sector prompted Atkins to create its aerospace division 11 years ago.
Divisional managing director Neil Kirk says: "It was a very big industry that Atkins was not playing in - and we asked ourselves 'why not?'. Two of the biggest companies in the world were on our doorstep - Airbus and Rolls-Royce - and we felt we should be working with those people."
From relatively modest beginnings, the aerospace business now employs around 500 people globally, and counts both Airbus and Rolls-Royce as clients. Turnover stands at about 1% of the parent company's - around £16 million ($25.5 million) - but Kirk sees that doubling over the next three to four years.
As part of that expansion plan, in June it opened an office in Kirkland, Seattle. A five-person staff has already risen to 10; the plan calls for an increase to 50 over the next two years.
Better have somebody run a sliderule over those sharklets
Although the long-term aim is clearly to work directly with Boeing, Atkins is initially targeting the sprawling supply chain that feeds the Seattle airframer.
Kirk says that it has one contract almost ready to be unveiled. The Seattle office adds to its global network - three sites in the UK (Bristol, Derby and Glasgow), two in Germany (Hamburg and Bremen), Amsterdam and Bengaluru, the latter offering a lower cost base for some tasks.
Kirk says Atkins' unique selling point is a combination of technical expertise and project management, something he feels that was missing from its customers in the early days. He says: "In my view, the business model in those days [among clients] was quite old-fashioned. It was very much about having people filling roles. Now it's very much moved to fixed-price deliverables.
"That's something I hope we can bring to the USA - the mentality there is about hiring a person to do a job, but we can provide our teams to deliver solutions."
Take its work for Airbus, for example. Atkins' first large-scale project was a check stress analysis for large parts of the A380's wing, which is also a task it is performing on the in-development A400M military airlifter, in the run up to its certification.
Additionally, Atkins is carrying out "a lot of the design work" to strengthen the wings on the A320 and A321m as part of Airbus's programme to introduce line-fit sharklets to the types. Wing strengthening design work will also follow on the A320neo family, as that programme accelerates towards production.
Another 70 to 80 Atkins staff provide "strategic engineering support" for landing gear across the Airbus range. Although the likes of Liebherr still build the gear, Atkins teams help integrate these systems into the aircraft or make in-service changes.
It is also undertaking design work on the A350's in-board flaps, complementing work carried out for Rolls-Royce on the Trent XWB engine that will power the twinjet.
Kirk says: "The project management resource we bring to the party is quite a scarce resource."
He argues that it allows customers to concentrate on the key aspects of their own business "which enables them to deliver a better product".
Although there are doubts whether Boeing will persist with the outsourced engineering model that caused it so much difficulty on the 787, Kirk says Atkins can benefit either way - it can work for the airframer or for its risk-sharing partners.
"They make their money from selling airplanes or aerostructures - not the engineering, that's just a cost. It's an opportunity for us in both cases."
Source: Flight International