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17th Jan 2022

Innovating in Aerospace Defence with Atec Engineering Solutions

Charlotte Stoker

Atec Engineering Solutions are a 75 year strong privately owned engineering company based in Manchester. They operate predominately within the defence industry, which includes aerospace. The company manufactures control systems alongside a variety of other components required for flight. Whilst manufacturing is a major focus, a large proportion of their service is repairing existing assets. We spoke with John Bowden, Managing Director at Atec Engineering Solutions to find out more about the company and what he expects to emerge in the aerospace sector.  

What’s Atec’s main area of involvement within the aerospace market? 

We predominately work within the defence sector and that covers land, sea, and air applications. For the air applications, we support both fixed and rotatory wing applications. Whilst we build components, a large amount of what we do is maintenance, repair, and overhaul.  Given the value of products in aerospace, which for our products can range between £50,000-200,000, it’s not something to throw away and buy another when it fails. Aside from the cost aspect, there is the whole sustainability side as well, where the drive is to repair, not waste or replace. We’ve been doing this for 30 years, so for us, it’s nothing new, but it adds a slightly different sustainability spin now. Many of the assets have been out in industry for 30-plus years, so they do stay out there for really extended periods of time, making the maintenance side of the business critical.

Defence vs. Commercial Lifespan

There are different regulations between the two, so the military defence side is often catching up with what has been done in the commercial civil sector for a number of years. But the main difference is that commercial planes face heavier usage, they have maintenance cycles every day! Military assets are bought with a 15-20 year lifespan in mind, but they often last up to 50 years. Especially with the sheer cost to purchase them.

Many of the military contracts have moved to what they call an ‘availability’ style contract, which means all of their assets, their helicopters, planes, wherever they are, need to be available at all times. And to do that, you’ve got to therefore have all the components  readily available, which has been an interesting shift because they’re typically not.

What was the effect of the pandemic on the defence market? 

We didn’t quite have the same downturn as commercial aerospace. There wasn’t a grounding of the military, so we didn’t see that big drop off. I think what we saw was the effects of uncertainty and homeworking and all of those things that had to happen in response to the pandemic. I don’t think a lot of the bigger companies responded very well to that. It’s kind of easy as a small business. There were some fundamental infrastructure problems. I think the adoption took longer.

Are there any specific predictions you have for the defence market? 

Defence does tend to go in trends and the trend right now is land systems. So, you know tanks and fighting vehicles seems to be the flavour which probably means for the next five years that will be a focus for us. Whereas for aerospace, it will be more around maintaining and extending the life of the flight assets that the customers have, the helicopters and fast jets, etc.

I think going further afield you know, when we go past 10 years, the development cycle that’s happening in the background is the next generation of what the skies will look like in the future. So, there are a lot of projects going on at the moment, such as the UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) capability expansion. BAE are leading a big project at the minute called Tempest which is the next generation of fighter jet to replace what is already becoming a legacy platform, currently in service.  

There has been a shift for probably the last five years to explore this type of technology and seems to be gaining pace and I think as confidence grows in UAVs this will be a growing industry and has a place in the market. Unmanned flight applications are developing much faster than other vehicles due to the lack of interference of other items in the sky.

Do you think the industry is making progress in terms of sustainability?  

There are a lot of companies working on this at the minute, and that’s across all defence domains, land, sea or air. They are actively trying to resolve the sustainability issue. But the biggest challenge that they are facing, that isn’t true for the commercial side, is that they can develop the batteries and engines, and electric motors that are capable of propulsion, but where do you charge them on a battlefield? Their journeys could be to the middle of a dessert where a charging infrastructure doesn’t exist. I think there is maybe a greater look towards modular power sources, bringing with them the additional batteries.  

Aside from electric, all UK MOD contracts have a minimum 10% of their marking on social values, sustainability and net-zero so it’s a fundamental part for those supplying the industry. I think this percentage will probably move towards 20-25% as well and inherently the entire defence sector is now on the net-zero journey.

Investment in the area

I think there was a view that the defence sector might have some really big budgetary constraints, but that doesn’t seem to have happened. It’s easy to cut from areas that aren’t needed right now, if we are not in the middle of a war, then how much is needed. But I think because the defence sector has supported the NHS and there has been an underlying current that the industry hasn’t got the right equipment, there seems to be strong ongoing spend, which is really positive.

There are many exciting new technologies and innovations emerging in the aerospace sector and it will be interesting to see how companies like Atec Engineering Solutions help the defence sector keep up with the trends. 

If you are an innovator within the aerospace industry, get in touch as we would love to hear from you!