Not long ago, I had the pleasure of accompanying a Malaysian cabinet minister to Toulouse, France, to visit the Airbus A380 final assembly plant. Passing through the heavy hangar doors, every Malaysian was in awe of how parts of aerospace technology seemed to drift silently from all corners of the factory to form the A380, the world’s largest airliner.
As I observed everyone taking mental note of what heights of technology Malaysia must one day aspire to, I interrupted the tour and announced to the group, “Allow me to point out the components of the A380 that are designed and built in Malaysia”. It was the proverbial record scratch moment, as I became the focus of a dozen or so surprised people. Walking the group over to the wing assembly area, I pointed to the gently sloping 40m wingspan and showed them the numerous parts that said “Made in Malaysia”. The minister shook his head and exclaimed, “Why don’t more Malaysians know about this?”
Actually, this should be no surprise as since 1972, when Malaysian Airline System (MAS) was formed, Malaysia has been providing world-class aerospace maintenance, manufacturing, design engineers and technology. The latest figures show this momentum has been maintained to the present day, with the aerospace industry growing by 19.8% (compound annual growth rate) from 2012 to 2016 and now bringing in revenue exceeding RM11 billion per annum. While the development of this industry may have occurred “under the radar” of many Malaysians, it is time to redress this perception and embrace our growing status as an “Aerospace Nation”.
Aircraft maintenance repair and overhaul
Maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) companies are the demarcation between the airline and aerospace industries. From the personnel in overalls hovering around when you board the aircraft (line maintenance) to those dismantling the aircraft in the hangar (base maintenance), the industry employs many thousands of skilled Malaysian engineers and technicians who work around the clock to ensure aircraft safety. If you think about it, unlike your car spending 70% of its life parked, the only time an aircraft stops moving is when it is being maintained or sold.
Not so long ago, Malaysian Airlines Engineering (MAE) was the third largest MRO service provider in the world, bringing in approximately RM3 billion of revenue per annum. In its heyday, it serviced roughly 100 global third-party airlines and was known for its quality of service. MAE was an unfortunate casualty of the airline’s restructuring. However, in its wake has been the establishment of Airbus Customer Services Malaysia (ACSM) and Sepang Aircraft Engineering (SAE), both flagship Airbus entities in the region. ACSM is manned by Malaysians, trained to trouble-shoot on behalf of Airbus critical technical issues for airlines such as Emirates and Qantas.
Aircraft components design and manufacture
SME Aerospace (SMEA) in Sungai Buloh and Composite Technology Research Malaysia (CTRM) in Batu Berendam — established in 1985 and 1990 respectively — ship thousands of aircraft components globally every month. These companies began by manufacturing the MD3, Lancair and Eagle, all examples of elegant light aircraft.
Although acknowledged today as a commercial misadventure, the capabilities and kudos they obtained launched them as bona fide aircraft component manufacturers. This is where the aerospace industry is the antitheses of the conservative view of many Malaysians — that we should not overreach.
The ability to turn failure into success is testament to the quality, abilities and resolve of the Malaysians the industry has produced through its exacting standards. Off the back of SMEA and CTRM is the established Spirit Aerosystems in
Malaysia, one of the world’s largest aerospace groups supplying major assemblies to Boeing and Airbus.
A walk down the air-conditioned assembly line in Subang, Petaling Jaya, would have you thinking that you were in the Airbus facility in Toulouse. Here, manufacturing engineers craft, wing and fuselage components at ever increasing rates to keep up with the 40,000 odd backlog of aircraft orders.
In 2006, a team of five young engineers set up Strand Aerospace Malaysia (SAM) in Cyberjaya, outsourcing design and analysis knowledge work from the UK. With more than 100 specialist engineers in their ranks today, they are part of a global team driving the development of new aircraft and technologies. At 4pm every day, the phones at SAM are buzzing as Malaysians provide technical insight to manufacturing teams in Europe.
Where to next?
The second iteration of the Malaysian Aerospace Blueprint launched in 2015 aims to make Malaysia the No 1 aerospace nation in Southeast Asia by 2030. Considering what we have achieved to date, the National Aerospace Industry Coordinating Office (Naico) assures us that it is a goal that is well within reach.
UMW, known for the manufacture of Toyota cars in Malaysia, recently launched UMW Aerospace to supply aircraft engine components to Rolls-Royce. This is part of a growing trend of Malaysian companies moving successfully up the value chain via aerospace.
“We Are an Aerospace Nation” should be a mantra close to the heart of every Malaysian as we go into the Fourth Industrial Revolution, that we might together realise our fullest potential.
Naguib Mohd Nor is CEO of Strand Aerospace Malaysia and president of the Malaysia Aerospace Industry Association. He is also chief technology officer of MARA Aerospace and Technologies.