Gary Seale is not the first manufacturer to wonder how aircraft parts can possibly cost so much. But while the automotive parts maker from Wales is quick to admit that he has a lot to learn about aerospace, he is not impressed by the need-for-absolute-reliability defence of high costs.

Seale, who heads technical sales and marketing at Cobra UK, recalls the time an aerospace executive looked at his concept for low-cost, lightweight plastic airliner seats and said: "Gary, there are no lay-bys in the sky." Seale's convenient retort was a NASA study praising the performance of plastic structural components in the Space Shuttle.

Or, there was the time an aerospace engineer tried to impress the car man with the fact that automotive designs were all well and fine, but aircraft seatbelts were crash tested to 16g. Really, thought Seale? We work to 35g...


And so began a two-and-a-half-year push to diversify out of a suffering automotive market that has Cobra - which supplies auto makers with products such as load floors, restraint netting, sunblinds, interior lighting and sound-damping materials - in reach of a deal to supply seats for an unnamed Russian regional jetliner.

Working closely with a UK airline and riding on UK Department for Trade and Industry-supported trips to last year's Hamburg aircraft interiors exhibition and, subsequently, the MAKS Moscow air show, Welshpool-based Cobra learned a lot about what aerospace customers want. And that, says Seale, is to slash weight, with one prospective Russian customer outlining his top three requirements as "low mass" - and "low mass" and "low mass".

Aircraft seating
 © Cobra UK
Sitting pretty: automotive thinking, new materials and just 6.6kg

On that score, Seale is confident that Cobra can deliver a game-changing solution. By recognising that a traditional aircraft seat's trim accounts for 40% of its mass, and that on short- to medium-haul flights comfort is less critical than on long-haul routes, Cobra employed automotive concepts of combining decorative and structural elements to devise a carbon-polymer hybrid seat which weighs in at a scant 6.6kg (14.5lb), including seatbelts, arm rests and tray table. The design is also slim, enhancing legroom.

Again employing automotive design concepts, the seat also features fewer parts and an assembly time of just 15min. Although Cobra's target is the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737 single-aisle market, Seale says he has had it calculated that the retrofittable seat would save a 757 operator £880,000 ($1.43 million) a year in fuel burn for a 235-seat configuration. A leasing deal is being worked out on the seats and Seale is eyeing a "huge" potential market, with 2 million seats flying on Airbus and Boeing single-aisles.

He also readily admits that "we've got to get something in the air". Certification poses risks, as testing authorities do not have much historical data on hybrid materials, but Seale is confident a 20g crash test scheduled for this week will vindicate the design and he hopes to have some seats flying on a test basis with Cobra's UK airline partner in 2011.

A Russian deal could involve Cobra supplying the seats - which would demand investment in manufacturing capability - or kits, or, possibly, local manufacture in Russia.

Looking forward, Seale reckons some automotive thinking can open the way to products in many other aircraft component sectors, ranging from toilet seats to overhead bins and "other fancy stuff". Seale points to cabin lighting, where cars are moving beyond the LEDs that aircraft have yet to introduce. When it comes to technology and design, says Seale, "a lot of the aviation industry is still stuck in 1960".


As an industrial firm, the key to success - and survival - for Cobra is collaboration. Seale describes the company as small but good at communicating with its suppliers: "They have good ideas." One example is the tray table for Cobra's lightweight seat, which was designed to collapse rather than break when overloaded. That idea, says Seale, came from a supplier who also works with rail carriage makers.

Cobra ultimately formed a consortium of seven small, local manufacturers called Cobra AS (Aircraft Systems), to pool expertise to tackle this new, for them, market. The group, says Seale, is an effective cluster of small-to-medium enterprises of the sort that are now the "backbone of the British economy". "The big guys are gone," Seale says.

Source: Flight International