With 800 employees, former BAE Systems chief executive John Weston as chairman and not a machine tool in sight at its complex in Preston in Lancashire, Inbis could not be described as a typical north-western SME. A management buyout of Ricardo Group's non-automotive design business in 1997, the design consultancy will turn over £70 million ($128 million) this year.

Sales have soared on the back of the trend by primes to outsource more elements of structural design: one of Inbis's prestige contracts has been to design part of the A380 wing inner leading edge for Airbus. It also works for Vought and for BAE Systems in Prestwick.

Group chief executive David Bradley says primes and systems integrators are looking for fewer and fewer supplier partners, but are entrusting them with bigger contracts.

"Five years ago our average contract price was £50,000," says Bradely. "Now it's £500,000. In a year it will be £1 million plus. The supply chain is rationalising fast."

The company is also expanding into other growth areas - one of these is the supply of contract engineers to the aerospace and automotive industry. Its office in Toulouse services Airbus.

Two months ago, Inbis bought one of the sector's main players, MTS - its main customer is car maker Nissan. Using hired-in skilled staff is an increasing trend in both industries, as manufacturers strive for more flexibility in their workforces to cope with upturns and downturns in demand.

Weston, who quit BAE in March 2002, became part-time chairman of and an investor in Inbis earlier this year. He says the company's position in the supply chain interested him. "Primes are looking to focus more on the high end of system integration and subcontract out a number of issues on design and build and subsystem design," he says.

"More and more are asking themselves what their core engineering competencies are. This creates opportunities for companies such as Inbis."

Source: Flight International