Al ain may seem like one of the sleepier corners of the UAE, but in the desert just outside the ‘garden city’ a revolution is taking place. International consensus on the Gulf’s most famous exports tends to centre, rightly, on the black stuff that is located underneath the region’s shores, but there has now been evidence for some time that local countries are using their hydrocarbon wealth to position themselves as world leaders in some of the most complicated manufacturing sectors on the planet.
One of those industries is undoubtedly aerospace, which has long been associated with older, more traditional economies in the West. But Abu Dhabi’s Mubadala sees the sector as a vital route to diversifying the UAE’s economy, and is spending considerable sums to build a network of companies that it hopes will outmatch ageing international competition. A key facet of Mubadala’s aerospace programme is Strata, a company that builds aerostructures — that’s aircraft parts to you and me — from its new plant in Al Ain.
Bradley sounds bullish, but is his confidence justified? The figures alone seem to tell a promising tale. Despite the fact that the 21,600 square metre plant only swung into full operation last year, the firm already has well over a billion dollars of business lined up. Its first product, flap track fairings (streamlined pods that protect flap-operating mechanisms on the underside of commercial jet wings) for Airbus aircraft, began to be shipped out of the Al Ain facility in the last quarter of 2010.
But that package is just the start. Strata will also build ailerons (hinged control surfaces on the wings that allow an aircraft to turn) for Airbus A330 and A340 aircraft. In addition, the firm will also build flap track fairings for Airbus’s A380 ‘superjumbo’ aircraft, as well as constructing the entire empennage for Italian outfit Alenia Aeronautica’s fleet of ATR short-haul airliners.
“Over the course of the next twelve months, we will bring in twelve work packages from different partners — mainly from Europe and the US — and those packages will basically fill our plant,” adds Bradley. “We will then be discharging around a million man hours from our quite large workforce.”
Given Strata’s youth, the size of the contracts it has already won — not to mention the reputation of the clients with which it is doing business — is pretty impressive. By focusing entirely on composite aerostructures, the company is bidding to capitalise on a key trend that is already taking hold in the aviation sector. Composite parts weigh less than conventional metal parts, as well as having a longer lifespan, all of which winds up in huge savings for an industry where margins have faced a tight squeeze in recent years.
That trend has been crystallised by Boeing’s lengthy and delayed production of the 787 ‘Dreamliner’, the first commercial aircraft to use composite materials for most of its construction. Media headlines may have focused on the Dreamliner’s slow progress to market, but there’s no doubt that airlines are itching to see what sort of benefits such a modern aircraft can bring. Strata hasn’t yet confirmed a deal with Boeing, but negotiations are ongoing.
The US manufacturer’s close relations with Mubadala Aerospace also seem to indicate that a final contract is more a question of when rather than if, and Bradley has specifically earmarked the 787 as a project on which Strata can offer its services. “Of course we are very motivated to looking at how we can satisfy Boeing and other big companies of our capability, so that we can participate in the new generation of aircraft,” he says. “We do not want to be an organisation that is working on legacy aircraft. We want to be working on the 787, we want to be working on the A380s, A350s and the next generation that replaces single-aisle aircraft.”