Tuesday, 13 February 2007

Storming the bastion of aerospace design

Symbolism was evident at the Aero India 2007 air show that concluded in Bangalore on Sunday. Looking out from the plush Boeing Aircraft Corporation stand, the view accurately reflected the choices before the US major in cracking India's air force and civil aviation markets. On one side was the exhibit of public sector firm Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) with a huge plastic mock-up of a helicopter that existed only on drawing boards. The slick Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) stall dominated the rest of the landscape, a 12-projector cyclorama catching the eye with images rotating on a circular band.

Despite strong backing from the Ministry of Defence (MoD) for its defence public sector undertakings (DPSUs), the more high-tech, nimbler and innovative software companies like TCS, Satyam Computer Services and HCL are cornering a growing share of the business from aerospace giants like Boeing and Airbus. And it's not back-office work like inventory management; Indian software majors are directly involved in cutting edge design work including airframes, engine components and aircraft interiors. TCS designed parts of the airframe of the giant Airbus A-380, the world's largest airliner, and the exhaust outlet for the famous Pratt and Whitney engine that powers large numbers of commercial aircraft.

The aircraft design work being done by Indian companies cannot be acknowledged by them; Non Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) throw a smokescreen over contracts with foreign aerospace companies. Company resumes can only mention banalities, like this one from a Satyam Computer Services brochure, "Manufacturing services for one of the largest manufacturers of commercial aircraft based in Europe".

But R Suresh Babu, Director Aerospace Engineering, TCS points out that it's easy to zero in on the foreign company. "There are only two major commercial aircraft manufacturers: Boeing and Airbus. And there are just three big engine makers: General Electric, Pratt and Whitney, and Rolls Royce."

In fifteen years, TCS has made aerospace design one of its most important revenue streams, accounting for 7% of the company's turnover this year, or well over Rs 1000 crores. Over the next three years, TCS is targeting a four-fold growth in its aerospace design revenue, bringing in well over a billion dollars annually.

Companies like Satyam are equally bullish. Fuelling their optimism is a global spurt in aerospace growth as the west emerges from its post-9/11 aviation slump. Aircraft manufacture has risen sharply over the last three years and the trend is to push design and development to downstream suppliers that have the technical capabilities to handle cutting edge design work. But most exciting for companies like TCS are the huge business opportunities that will arise from offsets as defence and civil aviation sales increase. Instead of the low-cost, low-benefit offsets of the past, like the HAL's contract to manufacture Airbus doors based on design blueprints supplied to them, now high-tech private companies can design as well as manufacture aircraft components. Already, TCS has designed aircraft floor beams, control surfaces and satellite solar panels for manufacture by another group company, Tata Advanced Materials Limited.

Much of this business will take place behind closed doors. Stringent secrecy clauses in design contracts firewall design teams that are working on a project. Companies like Boeing and Airbus specify that a design team working for them cannot be located in the same city as teams working for their competitors. Secrecy clauses lay down computer firewall regulations, which means that a design team cannot even have a TCS email address; the email address would be an internal team address, serviced by a special server that is continuously monitored. An aerospace designer working on a Boeing contract must have a cooling off period of up to a year before starting work with Airbus. Such is the secrecy that when Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, during his visit to India in 2005, wanted to visit a TCS facility that was working on a General Motors contract, GM was requested to grant permission.

And so neither Boeing, nor TCS will comment when you ask them outright what business they did during Aero India 2007. But there's a twinkle in their eyes, a buzz around their stalls. And many people are saying the location next to each other was not exactly a coincidence.

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