Interview with Nicolas Bonleux, Managing Director of Liebherr Aerospace And Transportation, 0ctober 9th, 2020.
AeroMorning: The COVID crisis impacted a large number of aerospace companies, including Liebherr.
At that time, among the 1,500 employees of the Toulouse and Campsas sites, it seems that Liebherr is planning a limited reduction of headcount based on voluntary leave.
What is Liebherr’s plan in this respect ?
Nicola Bonleux: Several actions were taken by Liebherr Aerospace & Transportation to overcome this crisis while preserving jobs and competences :
- – Reduction of investment and of general expenses
- Strong reduction of leased personnel
- Hiring stop
- Partial unemployment scheme
- Headcount adjustment through a voluntary leave plan
It is too early so far to determine whether these actions will constitue a sufficient reaction. One thing is certain though: in spite of the manyfold challenges it constitutes for our teams and for our industry, we try in every occasion to turn this crisis into opportunities to become more resilient, more agile, and more reactive.
Liebherr Aerospace & Transportation belongs to the Liebherr Group, which is quite vertically integrated and quite diversified. How can this help Liebherr Aerospace & Transportation weather this crisis, compared with competitors whose shares are publicly traded or whose activities are essentially aerospace-related ?
Nicolas Bonleux: The Liebherr Group has been an independant family company since its foundation. This independance offers us the possibility to systematically position ourselves over the long-term.
Being a family company, with a high equity ratio, enables us to enjoy autonomy in decision-making as well as manoeuvering space in all our activities – which allows us, for example, to react with a high level of flexibility to the situation that the aviation industry is currently in.
Thanks to its diversification, the Group is able to soften the impact of economic fluctuations on its various markets.
Finally, the vertical integration strategy, that results in our mastering of a wide range of internal competences, turns out to be a solid asset for us when developing alternative activities in order to compensate the current downturn in aerospace revenues.
The COVID crisis conveys both risks and opportunities.
Some companies take action to emerge stronger and faster from this situation.
What is Liebherr’s strategy in this respect ?
Nicolas Bonleux: Liebherr-Aerospace & Transportation works in close coordination with its customers, suppliers and partners, and permanently liaises with national and international authorities, in order to timely make the decisions that enable us to overcome the crisis at the best of our possibilities. We have implemented actions that are adapted to the circumstances of each region of the world, in order to minimize contamination risks for our employees and their families, and to slow down the propagation of the virus. For example we have deployed sanitary measures, as well as postponement, to the extent possible, of business trips, or home office schemes.
Liebherr-Aerospace & Transportations teams, like those of every one of the Group’s other Divisions, are used to constantly monitoring the development of our markets and to reacting with flexibility. Since the beginning of the crisis we have been continuously adapting, and we will continue doing so at accelerated pace in the months to come.
Our priorities in this adaptation phase are the preservation of our competences and the continuity of our R&T investment. It is essential for us to further deploy our effort into the development of green technologies, and in particular those who will enable the decarbonated aircraft to happen within the expected timeframe.
Finally, the digital transformation, that we had started before the Covid and that we have maintained throughout the crisis, is an essential contributor to our ability to rebound.
Those priorities have enabled us to tighten the ties with our customers during the crisis, while they have allowed us to enhance the progress of the joint R&T projects we conduct with them.
Besides, we have further implemented our diversification strategy by leveraging the technologies initially developed for aviation and applying them to other industries like automotive, railway transport and space. This diversification strategy yields its first results, which offer us the possibility to compensate a part of the workload reduction on the commercial aviation side.
AeroMorning – In that perspective, when do you foresee that you will reach pre-COVID activity levels ?
Nicolas Bonleux: We estimate that we will get back to pre-Covid levels in commercial aviation within 3 to 5 years.
Since the situation is continuously developing, it remains challenging today to accurately predict the date and the extent of the upturn.
The Covid accelerated the introduction of new working methods like home office and reduced the need for open space offices. How did Liebherr manage this transition ?
Nicolas Bonleux: After having temporarily closed several sites and deploying home office schemes on a large scale, we implemented sanitary measures in order to enable our employees to gradually get back to our facilities in a safe environment (obligation to wear masks, increase of distance between work stations, availability of desinfection products across all facilities, virtual meetings, …).
Since Liebherr-Aerospace & Transportation has been working for a long time with customers and sites across various countries in Europe, America and Asia, our teams have been quite used to virtual working modes, which made it easier to adapt to the Covid circumstances.
AeroMorning : Liebherr is probably looking with interest at the new markets associated with new mobility : supersonic business jet, electrical vertical take off and landing (VTOL) aircraft, …. Can you tell us about Liebherr’s activities on these new markets ?
Nicolas Bonleux: Throughout the Covid crisis, we have maintained our effort to intensify our relationship with our customers, to accelerate our diversification, to further take forward our R&T undertakings, and to develop our markets. This effort created great perspectives and is yielding first results, that are quite promising. Of course the contribution of Gvt. funding will remain a key accelerator to all these topics, and we work with the funding bodies to get support in the frame of the several plans that were launched recently –for example support to the diversification of aerospace industries into other sectors; or support to the de-carbonated aircraft – so that we provide our undertaking with an additional momentum that enable us to meet the ambitious schedules that were set.
Herebelow is an overview of the successes we have gathered over the last months :
1/ First Step in Space : our technology for satellite thermal management
Thales Alenia Space decided to entrust Liebherr-Aerospace & Transportation with the development of components for the thermal management of next generation satellites.
Thermal management for satellites’ on-board electronics constitutes a growing challenge for space vehicle manufacturers. Liebherr contributes to its resolution through our extensive experience of on-board cooling systems. This sector constitutes a high potential growth lever for Liebherr-Aerospace & Transportation.
2/ 100% Green Air Conditioning for Trains
We have successfully concluded the demonstration phase of the 100% green air conditioning technology for railway applications for a regional train in the Region Occitanie, where the city of Toulouse is located. This technology is inspired from the aerospace industry and uses air instead of chemicals as refrigerant.
3/ Hydrogen Aircraft : Hydrogen-based Power Generation
Liebherr Aerospace & Transportation has been working for several years on the development of an an on-board fuel cell power generation system, using hydrogen as fuel. This development relies on the experience gained by Liebherr in fuel cell systems for automotive applications, together with Liebherr’s unique competences in integrating highly engineered aerospace systems.
We are getting organised to make sure that the support plans recently launched by the authorities will contribute to accelerating our works so that our technology is ready at the dates set by the authorities.
4/ Liebherr on-board the Supersonic Business Jet
Liebherr-Aerospace & Transportation was selected by the airframer Aerion Supersonic for the development of the integrated air management system of the AS2 new supersonic business jet. One of the system’s key components will be the electrical air conditioning pack, that will significantly enhance the aircraft’s performance while making it more environmentally compliant.
5/ First Delivery of an aerospace standalone electronic unit by Liebherr-Aerospace & Transportation
Liebherr-Aerospace & Transportation recently harvested the first successes of its strategy to develop standalone on-board electronics, which materialised into the delivery of deux standalone electronic units to Boeing :
- The first prototype units of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner nose landing gear steering remote electronic unit
- The first prototype units of the Boeing 777/ 777X main landing gear steering unit.
6/ Participation to Boeing’s Premier Bidder Program
Liebherr-Aerospace & Transportation was invited to participate to Boeing’s Premier Bidder Program, which distinguishes and values the suppliers that consistently maintain high performance levels. This participation will accelerate the expansion of our partnership with Boeing.
7/ Liebherr on-board Shanghai airport’s zero-emission shuttle buses
Liebherr supplies the fuel cell compressor to Chinese propulsion fuel cell integrator SHPT, which equips Shanghai airport’s zero-emission shuttle buses. This compressor constitutes a direct contribution to building up a transportation system that is more respectful of our environment.
8/ Liebherr supplies the air compressor for SAIC’s EUNIQ 7
Liebherr supplies the compressor for the fuel cell propulsion system of the Maxus EUNIQ 7 vehicle, a mini van made by the Chinese carbuilder SAIC, which was presented to the public in Shanghai in September.
What is Liebherr-Aerospace & Transportation’s contribution to a greener world ?
Nicolas Bonleux: We fully play our role in the aerospace industry’s objective to progressively reduce CO2 emissions up to becoming a carbon-neutral industry by 2050, through the following initiatives:
- Contribution to hydrogen aircraft, as mentioned in question 5 above.
- Contribution to the more electrical aircraft, and specifically to the more electrical on-board systems, in particular in the frame of the European “Clean Sky 2” * undertaking.
- Contribution to additional technology bricks of the green aircraft like fuel burn reduction, weight reduction and general enhancement of the aircraft systems’ efficiency
- Contribution to low-consumption traditional propulsion technologies, for example through Rolls-Royce’s UltraFan™ engine, for which we contribute to the power gearbox of the future. Rolls-Royce and Liebherr have established a common company named Aerospace Transmission Technologies GmbH with the target to jointly develop the capabilities that are required to produce this gearbox.
- As mentioned in question 5/ above, our aerospace technologies also contribute to greening other industrial sectors, like railway transport or automotive transport.
Besides, we have undertaken many actions to further enhance the environmental compliance of our sites and of our production processes, for example in accordance with the Reach European directive (for use of material peserving environment and public health) or with such actions as bird protection devices or solar panels.
As a conclusion, which main message would you like to convey to our readers ?
- We thank our customers, our partners and our employees in these troublesome times.
- We are not through all the turbulences yet, and we expect, like most of us in the industry, that we may have to go through additional difficult times. However we are convinced that the aerospace industry will not only overcome this crisis, but also leverage it to increase the contribution of aviation to the progress of our world.
- At Liebherr-Aerospace & Transportation, we focus onto the transformation of our company, so that we emerge stronger, more resilient, more agile, and so that we further enhance our contribution to the success of our industry and to a well-balanced development of our planet. Nadia Didelot for AeroMorning
- * Nota: Clean Sky 2 program is a research program co-funded by the European Commission and large European companies in the aeronautics field.
- Clean Sky 2 allows to continue the research effort necessary to achieve a 75% reduction by 2050 in CO2 emissions per passenger-kilometer generated by air transport.
- The program also covers the competitiveness of the European aviation industry and passenger mobility.