Mention Nantgarw to Weng Jiabao, the Chinese premier, and his eyes will light up. The second most powerful man in the world’s most populous nation is one of a stream of dignitaries who have visited the giant GE aero-engine maintenance plant near the former mining village close to Cardiff and come away highly impressed. Indeed, on a visit to London several years later he made sure the former Welsh Development Agency chairman, Lord Rowe-Beddoe, received an invitation to one of the occasion’s formal dinners and sought him out to tell him he would never forget the hospitality he had received (or in all probability the opportunity to press some of the buttons on the huge pieces of test equipment on site).
GE’s 1.2m sq. ft Cardiff plant, like the Nissan plant in Sunderland or the Halewood factory of Jaguar Land-Rover, both of which have recently benefited from investment by their overseas owners, is an illustration that Britain’s less favoured areas can cut it in big and competitive engineering operations. Employing more than 1,000 highly skilled individuals, the plant, winner of the Company of the Year trophy in the most recent IWA Business Awards, is in the words of its Welsh managing director, Adrian Button, harder to get into than Oxbridge.
It recruits from around 10 miles for its 25 annual apprenticeships, receiving more than 900 applications in the latest search. After an initial three years apprentices spend another two training on the job before becoming fully productive, a five year investment by the company in its staff. There are a further 50 graduate or sandwich course interns who join for a year across a range of management and engineering disciplines and are then taken on if they and the company decide they like each other. “It’s not possible any longer simply to put an advertisement in the paper and recruit the people we need,” says Button.
With a turnover of more than £1.2bn a year GE’s Welsh plant is a big cog in the wheel that keeps the world’s aircraft flying, looking after a total of 90 power plants at any one time and sending back to airlines this year a total of 500 good-as-new engines that could then stay on wing for a period of five to six years and last up to 40 years. Engines are trucked into Nantgarw from many parts of the world and are subjected to inpection by borescope (a flexible telescope for looking into inaccessible locations) so that engineers can determine what work needs to be done.
Some may need to be completely disassembled into as many as 20,000 pieces, which will then be cleaned, non-destructively tested, and x-rayed, for the serviceability of each part to be determined. They are then repaired, replaced and put back together, firstly as modules. Some will be sent to other GE centres of excellence as far away as the US or Singapore for specialist repair. Nantgarw itself carries out such work on behalf of the group on large engine cases. After repair every engine is put through further tests typically lasting six hours, before a final test replicating conditions encountered in flying, in particular take-off.
The Nantgarw plant looks after several different engine types but principally the CFM56, the world’s most popular engine with 20,000 currently in service worldwide on narrow body aircraft. The plant also has other engine work, notably the GE90, the biggest aero-engine in service, developed exclusively for the Boeing 777. “We are lucky here that the engines we have the capability for are leading-edge, new technology products. All airlines are looking to buy aircraft powered by the most efficient engines,”says Button, a Llantrisant native who joined GE as a quality engineer, then went off to run a GE ignition plant in Jacksonville in the US before returning to manage Nantgarw.
Nantgarw’s competition is both internal and external from some 20-30 plants sharing at least some of its competencies across the globe. Some airlines, such as Air France/KLM and Delta in the US, have their own maintenance operations and indeed GE’s Welsh plant derives from a previous British Airways facility set up after the second world war. British Airways remains a big customer as, too, are Emirates and several Chinese airlines. The low cost airlines – big narrow body airline operators relying heavily on the CFM56 – figure prominently in the order book, preferring not to undertake their own maintenance. Easyjet, Ryanair, Tui and Thomson among others all send their engines to Nantgarw.
Business like this has to be won, however, not just in competition with other big maintenance organisations but against other GE plants. Parent GE, which has long held on to a position among the world’s top ten companies, with products ranging across financial services, healthcare, imaging and power generation as well as aero-engines, has aviation division plants at several locations in Britain, in Prague, Singapore, Malaysia, Brazil, and across the US. The CFM56 and the other engines Nantgarw works on is maintained in a number of these and they could either win or be allocated work the Welsh plant currently handles in negotiations the parent has with the airlines.
Nantgarw has managed to continue to thrive, however, generating profits for its owner. “We always run the risk of losing to competitors. We are never the lowest on cost. Others will have rates of labour that are much lower but we win work based on the quality of what we produce here in Wales and on our turnaround times,” says Button. “Our workforce is highly skilled with a technical background second to none. Another advantage, he asserts, is that as a small country Wales has the capacity to move quickly. Support from the Welsh Government – which last year helped to fund 100 posts being created to service the GE90 – has been strong. Close links have also been established with local universities, including, a few miles further north along the A470, Glamorgan, which has its own aeronautical department.
To continue to offer high quality, well-paid jobs the plant must, according to Button, continue to win business to work on the latest GE engines. The Boeing 777’s new triple composite engine, is a target. “We would like to have the investment to offer that.” It is a business, too, in which nurturing good customer relationships is vital. The Nantgarw team has to make sure that airlines from as far afield as China that currently entrust it with their aircraft are willing to continue to do so.
As a good corporate citizen, GE has reciprocated Government and local support. Its social responsibility programme has won a number of awards, including at another IWA ceremony, the Inspire Wales Awards 2012, for its work with Llamau, a charity helping socially excluded, homeless young people in south Wales. It has strong relationships with a number of schools in the area and has recently broken through the £1m mark of support for children’s hospice, Ty Hafan. It has also made efforts to attract more girls on to its apprenticeship schemes but finds itself up against the choices girls make at 13. If they have not been able to offer maths and sciences at GCSE they are unlikely to secure places.
As far as possible purchases are made locally, though much of the plant’s requirements has to be obtained from international suppliers. Nevertheless, some £20m a year is spent locally on support and other purchases, and items such as tools are also obtained locally if possible.
Complacency would nevertheless be dangerous. The aviation business is already growing much faster in developing markets such as China, India, Brazil and the Middle East than in Europe where a greater degree of saturation has been achieved and it is inevitable that aero-engine maintenance will grow just as rapidly in those territories. It also means, however, there is a bigger world market for Nantgarw to chase.
More could be done, Button believes, to improve Welsh competitiveness. GE would like to bring freight into Cardiff Airport but finds it has to use London Heathrow or Manchester. Nantgarw reports to GE Aviation’s headquarters is in Cincinnati so a direct flight from Cardiff to the US would also be helpful, a priority other businesspeople in Wales have also identified.
The key, however, is to stay at the forefront of GE Aviation’s business. “The plant currently has the capability to work on engines that have a potential life of 40 years so we have that market in front of us. We have to maintain that position. We are not going to sit back. We must go out and grow, “ Button says.
June 18th 2012