In the four years since the last Farnborough air show, much has changed for the Belfast-based aerostructures business that started life as Short Brothers. Back in 2018, it was still part of Bombardier and was led by Michael Ryan, a Belfast native who had been involved with the company since the early 1980s.
But in early 2019, cash-strapped Bombardier announced that it had slapped a for sale sign on the aerostructures operation – which in addition to Belfast also includes sites in Dallas, Texas, and Casablanca, Morocco. A buyer quickly emerged, with USA-based Spirit AeroSystems in October that year striking an agreement to acquire the three sites for a total consideration of $1.1 billion. The deal eventually closed around a year later, for a reduced figure of $865 million.
Last year, Ryan – whose lengthy full title is now vice-president, European space & defence, and government affairs; chairman, Spirit AeroSystems UK – also saw a change on a personal level, gaining a knighthood for his services to the economy.
The $235 million reduction in the asking price was, however, symptomatic of the wider issues hitting the industry at that point: mere months after Spirit announced its intention to acquire the Bombardier business, Covid-19 arrived, putting air travel on ice and triggering an unprecedented downturn.
As demand for new aircraft dried up and deliveries and revenues dropped, the aerospace industry scrabbled to stay upright. For many, that meant job cuts and Bombardier in Belfast was not immune, shedding around 600 positions from its 3,500-strong workforce.
With that as a backdrop many observers wondered if Spirit would still press ahead with the deal. But Sir Michael was not one of them: somewhat counter-intuitively he saw a separate crisis being dealt with by the Kansas aerostructures giant as offering a clear reason for proceeding.
“The other pressing issue for Spirit at the time was the challenge of the 737 Max setbacks which had started before they had agreed to buy us,” he says.
Boeing’s initial reduction to 737 Max output was eventually followed by a halt to production as the airframer grappled with the ramifications of the type’s grounding on the back of two fatal crashes. Spirit, as a supplier of complete fuselages to the narrowbody programme, was deeply affected by that move. However, the heavy exposure to Boeing was also pushing the company to seek alternative revenue streams: on that basis, the Belfast business – and its wing production for the Airbus A220 – was a logical target.
“When they decided that this [purchase] was still so strategically important to them that they would continue with it even in the face of the 737 Max crisis then I was less concerned with the pandemic’s interference in the acquisition,” he says.
“Spirit were very transparent about this, that the 737 circumstances reinforced their need for diversification and that’s why they went into it at the time.”
The assumption was that the industry would emerge from the pandemic at some stage, Ryan says, and “Spirit still believed that the diversification strategy was the right way to go”.
Of course, concluding the purchase and then integrating the new acquisition at the height of the pandemic was not made easier given the travel restrictions in place.
“Spirit actually completed the biggest acquisition that they have done without being able to visit us,” Ryan says.
Despite this, the integration has proceeded smoothly; as an example Ryan highlights the migration of the unit’s IT systems from Bombardier to Spirit, a process that was concluded around six months early and, crucially, was “invisible to the customer”.
But almost two years since the acquisition closed, what has actually changed? From an outside perspective the answer appears to be very little: the Belfast plant is still churning out composite wings for the A220 – one of the things that made the plant so attractive to Spirit in the first place – along with composite horizontal stabilisers for Bombardier’s Global 7500 business jet, plus nacelles and other structures for a variety of platforms. Support of the company’s products, particularly nacelles, on the in-service fleet also continues.
However, Ryan says it is only once you peer under the surface that the changes become apparent. Although a core part of the business is its manufacturing capability and composite competence, Belfast also has a substantial engineering organisation, employing around 300 people. Since “becoming part of the Spirit family”, as he puts it, the site has taken on engineering responsibility for the company’s contribution to the A350 widebody, for which it makes the section 15 central fuselage panels.
That work has transferred from Spirit’s Wichita headquarters and is also ramping up, thanks to the launch last November of the A350 Freighter.
“Not only were we supporting the A350 from a sustaining engineering point of view but we are actually hugely involved [in the] product development of the A350 Freighter, which includes a significant redesign of our part of the fuselage, and then supporting it into service as well,” he says.
The acquisition by Spirit has also given Belfast the freedom – a mandate, even – to seek work outside of Bombardier, particularly in the business and regional aircraft segments. “Now we are not part of Bombardier then the opportunities to work with other business aircraft OEMs is more possible than it had been within Bombardier,” Ryan says.
“Spirit are prepared and willing to look at engagements with other business aircraft OEMs, other regional aircraft OEMs, as well as the big two [Airbus and Boeing].”
But to date, the only contract win for the Belfast plant is with Airbus for the development of the 16m (52ft)-wide single-piece composite wing for its CityAirbus NextGen electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft.
Involvement in the fledgling eVTOL market makes sense for Spirit and Belfast, says Ryan, because they are “going to require the capabilities and skills all of [the aerostructures suppliers] have developed over the years, designing something, testing it and bringing it to market”.
Spirit Belfast believes its experience with composite technology and links with the regulators “can be exploited in that marketplace”, he says, although the challenge will be to ensure that the structures can be built at rates much higher than those seen in aerospace today: “There’s things that we will have to learn in terms of mass production going forward.”
One obvious area of change though is the Belfast site’s relationship with its former owner Bombardier. Although there was always an arm’s-length relationship between the different parts of the business, “we were also really ingrained in the process”, Ryan says. “We would have seen what they were developing months, maybe years ahead of a third-party supplier.”
Obviously that has now changed, and Belfast is adjusting to its new role. “I don’t think it would surprise anybody that it has been a challenge for us to move from being part of the family with Bombardier to being a supplier,” he says.
Ryan asserts, however, that this has “forced us” to “up our game”, helping the company to overcome the loss of “familiarity and understanding” – he doesn’t use the word complacency, but it is close – that comes from being an in-house supplier.
Competition on cost to get onto any aircraft programme is fierce, he notes, and “therefore when Bombardier comes up with another product launch we are going to be competing as other aerostructures providers will do, so we need to be on top of our game”.
As Northern Ireland’s largest manufacturing business, Spirit Belfast’s continued health is vital to the country’s economy. And as the market for civil aircraft ramps up again, the plant is once more taking on staff.
Around 300 people across all disciplines have so far been recruited over the past six months, an apprentice scheme is up and running once more, and graduate recruitment has also recommenced. Pre-Covid levels of employment should be attained within “a couple of years”, assuming customer demand remains strong, says Ryan.
Despite the size of the UK’s aerospace sector, prior to the Belfast acquisition Spirit’s only presence in the nation was its plant in Prestwick, Scotland, which makes wing leading and trailing edges and spoilers for Airbus programmes.
Ryan sees the strong links between the government and industry in the UK through bodies like the Aerospace Growth Partnership and Aerospace Technology Institute as offering a key advantage to Spirit, helping to fund the development of the capabilities required for future programmes.
“And now we are bringing from Belfast opportunities as well, over and above what they [previously] saw and hoped for,” he says.