Lord secures breakthrough 737 Max deal

Lord is marking its biggest contract in its 94-year history and breakthrough into the Boeing commercial market with the deal to design and build the auto throttle for the 737 Max.

The US firm will produce the cockpit control module at its under-construction factory near Valence in south-east France and in Cambridge Springs, Pennsylvania. The unit is currently made by Boeing itself, but Lord will become the sole-source supplier when it starts shipping the product in 2020.

The North Carolina-based company celebrated the agreement at a ceremony on 8 March at its current French facility in Saint-Vallier, the former Fly-by-Wire business it acquired in June 2016, which has been rebranded as Lord Electromechanical Solutions. Neither it nor Boeing will put a value on the contract, but Lord says it is the largest it has ever won.

“If you look at the volumes that Boeing will be producing and the fact that the programme is so solid for years to come, it is a great opportunity for us,” says Frederic Ponchon, commercial director of Lord in France.

The French division’s record in designing cockpit controls, sensors, dampers and actuators for airliners and business aircraft including the Airbus A320, Bombardier CSeries and Embraer Legacy 450/500 was a “crucial factor” in Boeing’s decision, he adds. Lord already makes a similar throttle control unit for the Legacy jets, but the Boeing deal will involve it making far more modules in a month than it does for Embraer in a year.

However, aside from a 30-year-old contract to supply the cable tension regulator on the Boeing 767 and out-of-production 757, this is the first piece of Boeing business for Lord in France, which is due to move to the new Valence facility in September. The French factory will share production and repair and overhaul duties with Cambridge Springs, with about 60% of the units being shipped to Boeing in Renton from France.

Paradoxically, one of the reasons Lord bought Fly-by-Wire from Swedish corporation SKF was to help it broaden its customer base to Airbus – among the French business’s products are the pioneering pilot sidesticks, introduced with the A320 in the 1980s and now fitted to every Airbus airliner.

Lord – a diversified, privately-owned industrial supplier to the transportation and automotive sectors, with aerospace revenues of around $320 million – already had Boeing as a customer for its largely military- and helicopter-reliant US business. But with the decline in the offshore rotorcraft sector and in defence spending around 2014 and 2015, the company was keen to spread its aviation portfolio, including into the European and fixed-wing markets.

Ponchon says the 737 Max deal came following a visit to Boeing by the French team just after the acquisition. He says Lord’s “long relationship helped us open the door”, but he admits the contract “came as a surprise”.

The fact that Lord could build the unit and offer aftermarket support from factories in Europe and the USA, with separate supply chains, also helped secure the work, maintains Ponchon. “We had to prove that our supply chain was robust enough to cope with the volumes they required.”

Boeing has been slowly expanding its supplier base in the heartland of its rival Airbus. Aside from Safran, 50% partner in the CFM International venture with GE Aviation that makes every Boeing narrowbody engine, its other significant French suppliers include Figeac Aero, Latecoere, Michelin, Thales and Zodiac.

In January, Boeing selected Daher to provide thermoplastic composite structural parts for the 787, replacing components manufactured using more traditional thermoset composite materials. It was the first contract with Boeing for the French company, which is a major supplier to Airbus and Dassault, and builds the TBM family of single-engine business turboprops.

One barrier to Boeing growing its industrial penetration in the European country has been the lack of US equipment in the French military inventory. However, Boeing’s director general for France Jean-Marc Fron believes the CH-47 Chinook remains a prospect. “They have nothing with its capabilities,” he says. Earlier this year, the UK offered Royal Air Force Chinooks to aid France’s campaign against Islamic militants in North Africa.