Strand Aerospace Malaysia handles critical work for Airbus

PHOTO: Strand Aerospace Malaysia handles critical work for Airbus

The most impressive feature of the world's largest passenger plane, the A380, is its supersized wings. Each wing is just 10m short of an Olympic-size swimming pool.

The weight of each wing (roughly equal to five African elephants) is supported by three massive beams that house the landing gear, flaps, air brakes and thousands of other critical parts.

When the plane flies through turbulence, the beams are subjected to tremendous forces, causing the wing tip to bend upward or downward by up to 1m or more.

This creates small cracks in almost every A380 flying today.

From the beginning, Airbus has enlisted engineering offices in Europe, North America, India and China to design and calculate the complex variations in flying conditions to ensure that their flagship plane remains their safest carrier.

What's not so well known is that Airbus has entrusted a big chunk of the complex, mind-boggling work - for example, analysing the growth of cracks in the A380's wing - to a group of engineers working in Menara Bata in Damansara Perdana, Petaling Jaya.

"Imagine a table where there are 10 kids jumping on it for 10 years. The forces exerted on the table will vary as the kids vary in weight over time. The table will undergo stress and fatigue," said Naguib Mohd Nor, gesturing toward the A380 model on the table of his well-lit office.

"When the A380 is in the air, the wings are twisting, bending, flexing. You have to imagine every conceivable scenario for stress and fatigue. We were responsible for analysing the strength of the rear spar, or beam. The spar is one of the most critical parts of the aircraft. If the spar fails, the aircraft goes down," Naguib said.

Naguib (pronounced as Najib) is the chief operating officer of Strand Aerospace, an engineering services company based in Malaysia. Since it started in 2006, Strand has grown from a team of five to 160 engineers.

On a typical day, the engineers use complex mathematical software to design aircraft structures, calculate the amount of stress those components can take, and identify flaws that could compromise an aircraft's safety. Over the past seven years, Naguib and his team have done work for Airbus passenger planes, the Sikorsky S61 helicopter and the A400M military airlifter. Strand also provides services for the oil and gas, automotive and satellite industries.

When I visited the company on a sunny day in May, I was struck by how quiet things were. All I could hear was the clicking of computer mice and the squeaking of swivel chairs: that's the sound of a hundred engineers thinking.

While Naguib's demeanour reminded me of an affable neurosurgeon, I still felt shaken by what he had told me earlier in passing.

"Are you telling me that every aircraft I fly in has got … cracks in it?" I asked.

"This is normal," Naguib said. "Aircraft are designed to have cracks."

Airbus flew into a crisis early last year when hairline cracks were discovered in the wings of several new A380s flown by Qantas Airways and Singapore Airlines.

Airbus said the cracks were "non-critical". An official explained that the cracking was linked to unforeseen stresses during the manufacturing process - and not to a design problem.

In fact, Naguib said, Strand Aerospace's specialty lies in its ability to calculate the growth of cracks in aircraft. "The limit of the crack's growth determines the lifespan of the aircraft.

So we analyse the growth. We design the strength of the structure so that the cracks will grow at a certain rate," Naguib said.

Thanks to their research, it may one day be possible to double the life cycle of the Airbus A320 - a favourite aircraft for low-cost airlines.

A scholar-athlete-prefect at SMK St John, Naguib studied aerospace engineering at Cranfield in Britain, earning a Master's in aircraft design.

For fun, he read Plato and Kant, surfed, and hiked the 15 tallest peaks in Wales. Despite becoming a general manager at a Britain-based aerospace company, Naguib returned to Malaysia in 2006 with only RM12,000 (S$5000) in the bank. "I was looking for experiences, and I invested all my money there," Naguib said with a laugh.

Naguib's first job for Strand, back in Malaysia, was to calculate the strength of thousands of objects hanging on to the A380's rear spar. Naguib hired four people who worked 40 hours a week for 1.5 years to produce the analytical reports that certified the rear spar to be safe for use.

Since clinching their first big client, Strand has gone on to work on the fuselage, landing gear and tail plane for the entire Airbus fleet.

The company also provides services to Messier-Bugatti-Dowty, BAE Systems and CTRM.

"I was one of the four who worked on the spar," said Hafeiz Hassan, now general manager at Strand. "From the start, we focused on the high end of engineering. We have created a European type of engineering environment in Malaysia."

Addi Faiz Adnan, a client manager, returned to Malaysia a year ago after working inBritain. He was the youngest Malaysian to be certified to sign off on Airbus components. "People used to think of engineers as kerja kilang (factory work). But look around you. Besides computers, there are no machines here - only a photocopy machine!" Addi said.

At 37, Naguib is one of the oldest guys in an office filled with Gen Y engineers. And he's hoping to play a much bigger game. Backed by Pemandu, he aims to create an ecosystem for engineering services that will generate a gross national income of RM3.5bil and create at least 12,000 jobs for Malaysia by 2020.

The goal is to compete with countries like India for the highest end of the engineering services spectrum. India already has more than 12,000 workers in engineering services - a market projected to be worth US$1 trillion by decade's end.

"Strand Aerospace is a world-class company that's creating jobs in the highly specialised field of aerospace," said Eugene Teh, a director of business services at Pemandu. "Malaysia has had 20 years of experience in manufacturing aircraft composites. But in terms of design capability, we are still far behind. Naguib's helping us to build a critical mass of engineers who have the skill and scale to put Malaysia on the world map," said Teh.

After participating in a two-month lab organised by Pemandu, Naguib was given a grant to train a few hundred engineers in Malaysia whose skills would attract international firms - and therefore create a virtuous spiral for engineering services.

The work is starting to pay off. Last year, French engineering firm Altran set up in Malaysia after observing how Strand's local engineers were able to effectively engage with their European counterparts. Altran officials were also struck by the Government's focus on developing this industry.

"There's a big wave coming our way," said Naguib, a novice surfer. He estimates that by 2020, nearly half of Airbus sales will be in South-east Asia, with companies such as AirAsia snapping up the planes.

"Airbus has already sent manufacturing jobs to Malaysia. Now they want to do it for engineering services. Companies such as Airbus need people who can do the work in the same time zone. That's the wave. And it's coming."

And the only way to catch the wave at its crest - and go surfing - is to go into deep water, he added. "You need to be paddling out there, fast. Malaysia needs to get there to meet this wave. If we don't do it, someone else will be out there."

■ Alvin Ung is a facilitator, executive coach and author of bestseller Barefoot Leadership. The column and content are a collaborative effort between the columnist and the Economic Transformation Programme.