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All change with product evolution

Aircraft engine nacelles are constantly evolving, and so is the business of maintaining them. George Marsh reports

Within nacelles there is a growing proportion of composites in the material mix, driven by the weight reduction imperative. Nacelles are growing larger with ever higher by-pass ratios and, consequently, greater fan diameters. Overall, these multi-layered, mixed-material structures with their complex subsystems are becoming progressively more sophisticated. There is increased interdependence between engine and nacelle in integrated propulsion systems.


These trends have stimulated change in aftermarket support. Nacelle MRO has become more specialised, requiring high expertise and investment. Nacelle original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) have seized on this and made the aftermarket an indispensable pillar of their businesses. With their intimate knowledge of the product, control of repair and modification approvals and ability to bundle long-term MRO agreements with original purchase, they are in a strong position. So how can non-OEM maintainers compete?


One way is to take the path – by now well-trodden throughout independent MRO enterprise – of specialisation. A number of independents specialise in parts of the nacelle or in particular technologies. Oklahoma-based Vertical Aerospace, for example, focuses on the repair and overhaul of components including fan reversers, nose and fan cowls and exhaust nozzles, and has particular expertise in metal and composite bonded honeycomb structures. Vertical says it can develop repairs that are beyond the scope of structure and component repair manuals, and it supports customers with a rotable inventory that can be accessed via lease, exchange or purchase. Further specialisation is evident in the company’s concentration on Boeing and Douglas airliners.


Triumph Airborne Structures, part of the Triumph Group Inc, similarly specialises in the MRO of metal and composite bonded structures, including fan reversers and other nacelle components, as well as flight control surfaces. Its engineers have developed designated engineering representative (DER) procedures that enable components to be repaired rather than replaced, enhancing value to customers, says the company.


Closely linked is an outright specialisation in composites now that these tailorable materials account for a growing proportion of nacelle structure, not just the thrust reversers. Second-tier suppliers have proved able to enter this business, typically as sub-contractors to the primes. GA Telesis, for instance, has established its Composites Repair Group to specialise in nacelle and flight control surface MRO in a 56,000ft2 facility in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The company services and stocks a wide range of nacelle components including fan and core cowls, exhaust nozzles and thrust reverser translating sleeves, blocker doors, cascades and actuators. It carries out work for all the major aircraft and engine primes.


Applied Composites Engineering (ACE), also US-based, is 16 months into a multi-year agreement to provide Safran’s Aircelle with MRO services on nacelles and thrust reversers for both business and regional jets in the Americas. ACE had already been working since early 2009 on thrust reversers for Aircelle nacelles on AE3007 and CF34 engines powering Embraer ERJ 145, E-170 and E-175 jets. ACE was founded in 1982 as a small composites shop, initially to support Formula 1 car racing, and has since become an established US repair services provider operating FAA-certified facilities at its Indianapolis, Indiana, headquarters, and in a satellite station in Columbus, Ohio. ACE management sees the tie-up as an ‘excellent affiliation opening avenues for new cooperative business opportunities’.


Tier 1 MROs are also ensuring that they are part of the composites revolution. For instance, part of AFI KLM E&M’s rationale for regrouping several activities to a new aerostructures facility about to be constructed at Charles de Gaulle Airport, Paris, is to develop and upgrade its composites capability. A new greenfield composites repair shop, along with the upgrading of an existing aerostructures shop at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol will benefit nacelle support and halve repair turnaround times, according to AFI president Franck Terner. 


Another speciality where independents can make their mark is on-wing repair, typically carried out at customer-nominated locations. GE Telesis provides an example of this, having developed a global on-wing nacelle programme that includes certain on-site, on-wing nacelle repairs, along with on-wing thrust reverser technical inspections and evaluations.


While several airline spin-offs and other shops higher up the MRO chain send out mobile air support teams to rectify nacelle damage as part of a comprehensive nacelle MRO service – Lufthansa Technik being a notable example – there is probably room for more second-tier specialists as composites become increasingly adopted for their low weight and other advantages. >>

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