In a Q&A session, Composites in Manufacturing hears from two people responsible for SAERTEX’s Aerospace unit. Commercial director, Sven Blank and aerospace account manager, Benedikt Staaks reveal how the company has become a global market leader in the manufacture of multiaxial/non-crimp fabrics and core materials used in the production of fibre-reinforced composites.
The SAERTEX success story began in 1982 with the concept of producing technical reinforcing materials in the form of stitch-bonded fabrics, or non-crimp fabrics (NCF), instead of conventional textiles, and leveraging existing specialist knowledge to develop completely new products.
Although corporate expansion has made it necessary to establish new locations around the world, much of the old pioneering spirit still remains today. This is particularly evident in the company’s determination to constantly seek new directions and display the courage to pursue them.
With sales of approx. €350 million, SAERTEX has become a global market leader in the production of technical textiles and systems made of glass, carbon and aramid fibres. And with a total of 1,400 employees at 15 manufacturing facilities on five continents - together with an active sales and distribution network in over 50 countries - customers have come to depend on fibre-reinforced composites that offer light weight, stability and corrosion resistance thanks to reinforcement materials from SAERTEX.
Q) Has the company made any key capital manufacturing equipment purchases of late and if so, what and why?
Benedikt Staaks (BS): We recently invested in the extension of our carbon NCF production capacity through new machines and modification of existing machines. However, one of the most important factors for success is the constant desire for optimisation - even in the smallest areas. The mass of improvements we work on ultimately ensure our products meet the very highest quality standards - especially in the field of technical improvement regarding the optimisation of certain mechanical properties. To meet these requirements, we have recently invested in new NCF machines. The same applies to new production technology in the area of powder coating.
Another special added value is offered by our online quality inspection system (SDC). Using image analysis and the integration of electronics, we are able to examine the inner layers within multiaxials. For our customers, this means total assurance of quality regarding the required characteristic values. Our system prevents substandard products from being shipped.
Q) What do you feel are the most important assets of a company?
Sven Blank (SB): A company draws its strength from the interplay of many factors. Nevertheless, it always begins and ends with the most important factor: the people within the organisation. The most valuable part is the human capital and any plans to move your business to the next level start there.
This is especially true for us, as we do everything we can to give the customer that little bit extra. The offering of excellent products is not enough anymore. We want to make the difference by going the extra mile, having reliable performance, being close to customer and offer the highest competence achievable. All this is only possible with motivated and well-trained personnel who stand 100% behind these values and the resulting service orientation.
Q) Is there a concern that less well developed countries can push unqualified, or at least ‘unknown origin’ materials into the supply chain?
BS: The main application area of our fabrics are structural and dynamically loaded parts in primary structures of aircraft. Since enormous efforts and precautions are required to meet aerospace demands, we currently see no trend that unqualified materials can even come close to meeting these enormous quality requirements. Qualified materials are fully traceable along the supply chain, from manufacturing line and location to individual fabrication process settings.
All of the products we offer play an important role in the overall aircraft structure and consistently high safety standards. Therefore, we know that the same high standards must be applied to the materials made at SAERTEX. That is one of the reasons why our non-crimp fabrics and raw materials have a complete history and a fully-traceable supply chain.
Q) What differentiates your company from the competition?
SB: First, we are one of the leading non-crimp fabric specialists and are well connected to the relevant supplier of carbon, toughening materials, stitching yarn suppliers and other raw materials. This enables us to support our customers with the best raw material input which leads to outstanding solutions. We then process the selected raw materials into non-crimp fabrics according to the requirements of the customer.
Secondly, SAERTEX has a production network on five continents. Like no other, we are already able to deliver high quantities for serial aerospace production projects. We have been able to successfully fulfil customer orders at a very high rate. The ability to supply our customers around the world with proven, industrialised manufacturing processes is an important advantage for us.
Finally, we are a family-owned business. Despite our strong growth, SAERTEX has kept its special spirit of engineering and customer orientation, which means the highest flexibility and customised solutions in the aerospace industry. Our solutions are always tailor-made and individual. For us, customer relations also include consulting competence and the constant willingness to find joint solutions to problems.
As the most experienced supplier of non-crimp fabrics in the aerospace segment with proven success, we are happy to share our expertise with our customers to achieve the best possible result. All this is made possible by highly-skilled employees who are able and keen to improve existing products and production methods to provide innovative solutions for our customers.
Q) Is there a particular success story you can shout about involving a satisfied customer?
BS: We have worked on several successful projects with many major OEMs and tier ones in the aerospace sector. Whilst most of these projects are confidential, we can announce our cooperation with Safran, Airbus Helicopters and Spirit AeroSystems.
Likewise, the successful work on the Airbus A220 can also be considered as a flagship aerospace project for SAERTEX. It’s over 10 years since we supplied our carbon non-crimp fabrics to this project which are used to make wing skins, spars and other structural parts for the wings. We are looking forward to demonstrate our performance to Spirit AeroSystems, which recently acquired the Wing Production Unit of Bombardier in Northern Ireland.
Q) What have you been doing to get through the pandemic crisis, i.e. getting advice on furloughing employees, grants, funding, etc.?
SB: The number of employees as of today is around 1,400 permanent staff and we are still hiring new employees. Despite the ongoing pandemic, our business is running successfully, and we are able to deliver materials from all our plants around the world.
Q) Is there a particular area of your business that has been hit by the pandemic?
BS: The overall aerospace business at SAERTEX is quite stable. The decreased built rates, especially for materials with intended use in long haul aircraft, can be covered by new programmes which are still in their ramp-up phase. Our global production network and robust supply chain means there is little impact on our overall delivery performance. We see a reduction in the market need for large aircraft. For example, the phase out of the A380 - where we supplied materials and preforms from our plant in Stade, Germany - had been decided by Airbus before the pandemic.
Q) Do you have any positive ‘good news’ stories that your company has performed, i.e. pivot to manufacture PPE for the medical sector, etc.?
SB: The district of Stade was looking for a suitable location to establish a local vaccination centre. We are very pleased to support the community by providing our vacant production and administration SAERTEX complex for it. The facility, with an area of around 6,000m2 is ideally suited, creating vaccination capacity for around 1,000 people per day. Vaccinations out of our facility commenced from mid-February this year.
Q) Have you been using video conferencing methods between yourself and customers to maintain contact?
BS: As one of many measures, we strive to avoid personal contact as much as possible to minimise the risk of infection during the pandemic. This means avoiding face-to-face meetings and relying on digital tools. Microsoft Teams is the tool of choice within our company and it is running very well. All administration processes have been shifted properly to a home office network without losing performance or service level.
Of course, personal onsite contact with our customers is also minimised, which is why video conferencing is used here as well. In addition, we are also increasingly using webinars and online presentations for communication purposes. Other platforms, such as our LinkedIn channel, are also very popular and have seen a strong increase in followers during the pandemic.
Q) What kind of industry landscape will we faced with when everything gets back to normal?
SB: It’s possible that certain companies that have suffered during the pandemic will be acquired by other companies from within their surrounding supply chain. This will lead to aerospace manufacturers offering their services and capabilities into other industries, and in a higher level of vertical integration within these supply areas - a common trend seen in the aerospace industry. Covid-19 could be a catalyst to accelerate this move toward both trends.