There was panic among Dutch aerospace suppliers when Fokker went bankrupt in 1996, recalls Frank Jansen, of the Netherlands Aerospace Group. Many small and medium-size enterprises had grown up with the regional aircraft manufacturer, developing competencies in aerostructures as a home-grown supply chain. Fokker was their main - in some cases only - customer.

When it became clear that, even under new management, Fokker would not return to building aircraft, big decisions had to be made - by family businesses and by the sector as a whole as well as by politicians, given the importance of aerospace to the economy.

"Everything was focused on the existence of Fokker. We had to make a choice and find other customers," says Jansen, managing director of the trade association. "It was an exercise jointly done with the government. They played a key role."

Fokker 70
Fokker's fleet support contributes significantly to the country's aerospace turnover

In the 14 years since - like Fokker itself - the Dutch aerospace industry has prospered. It has been helped by military programmes including the NH Industries NH90 medium-twin helicopter (in which Fokker is a 5.5% stakeholder) and the maintenance and overhaul overhang from legacy Dutch acquisitions such as the Lockheed Martin F-16. Industrial participation in the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will also be a boon when production begins, although - unlike Belgium - the Netherlands is not in the A400M programme.

But it is in the civil sector that Holland's manufacturers have built a niche. They include global players such as chemicals giant Akzo Nobel, which is a leading supplier in aircraft coatings, and Driessen, which makes galleys. SMEs in the aerostructures sector - many of them based around the traditional manufacturing centre of Eindhoven - have also done well.

A strategy developed for F-16 workshare helped Dutch industry develop a supply chain for Airbus work once Fokker stopped building aircraft, says Jansen. "It made it possible for the industry to get into a supplier position."

A small country with high wage and social costs, the Netherlands has also been realistic about having to compete on technology rather than on price or scale. "Our niche capabilities in the Fokker days were structures and materials such as Glare and thermoplastics," he says. "With these technologies, we have been able to compete in a manner that gives us the appearance of being bigger than our industry actually is."

KLM Embraer E-190
 © Embraer
As KLM replaces its Fokkers with Embraers, the Netherlands is aiming to forge a link in the Brazilian manufacturer's supply chain

Dutch industry today turns over around €2.5 billion ($3.37 billion) and employs about 16,000. Roughly two-thirds of employees work in maintenance, repair and overhaul. This reflects the still large contribution of Fokker's support business and that of flag carrier KLM, which with partner Air France is a significant third-party player.

The country's reputation for technology, entrepreneurship and quality stands the industry in good stead on the international stage, says Jansen, part of whose role is to promote SMEs as part of national pavilions at around 15 air shows every year.

Emerging manufacturers in Brazil and Asia are key targets. "It is very attractive for international aircraft builders to use our technology," he says. Embraer has partnered Dutch companies on research and development projects, but with KLM replacing its Fokkers with Embraer 190s, Jansen says: "We would very much like to be more involved in their supply chain."

Source: Flight International