Singapore's aviation industry has done remarkably well in recent years. The aerospace engineering sector accounts for close to $9 billion in revenue annually, and its growth rate has consistently expanded at a compounded rate of 10 per cent in the last two decades.
The industry is a pillar of the economy, and Singapore is world-renowned as a global aviation hub.
However, to stay ahead of the growing competition in the region from Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, and maintain its status as an air hub, it is important for Singapore to seek out new growth opportunities.
The Government's SkillsFuture initiative - which started this year and includes work-study programmes and subsidised courses identified as providing skills for priority and growth sectors - can play an integral role. If well executed, it could be a game-changer in leap-frogging Singapore's competitiveness globally. Getting this right goes beyond pumping money into what is perceived as an already over- funded support structure.
For the aerospace engineering industry, about 95 per cent of total revenue comes from maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) work, with the remainder coming from manufacturing new original equipment manufacturer (OEM) components.
Dependency on MRO revenue is not sustainable as the industry is constantly under land and manpower cost pressure, and cheaper MRO alternatives are readily available in the region.
Under such a challenging environment, it is crucial that Singapore's aviation engineering industry move its dependency away from MRO-related work and up the value chain by redirecting its focus on design and production of OEM parts, as well as new repair process development.
Many OEMs in recent years package their sales with comprehensive and competitive after-sales services, offering customers a full suite of services from design and production to servicing.
To prepare for this change, the aerospace engineering industry must focus manpower training in newer specialisations that will be in demand in the future, such as computer-aided design and analysis, special process capability and composite materials manufacturing and repair.
New design or design changes in components need to be substantiated with engineering analysis, and one of the most efficient ways to justify new design and design changes is through computational analysis. Computer-aided design and analysis is the use of systems to assist in the creation, modification, study or optimisation of design. Building capability in computational analysis will boost Singapore's design and redesign capability.
Special processes such as heat treatment, non-destructive testing and thermal spray-coating are technical in nature and require highly skilled workers. Training workers to process components according to international specifications would complement Singapore's well-established precision manufacturing industry and position its aerospace industry as a more comprehensive service provider.
TECHNOLOGY'S RAPID CHANGE
The use of composite materials has been increasing, as their significantly lower density comes with little impact on their superior physical properties. Composites were initially used as secondary structures, but as development improved, they became used for wings and fuselages.
The use of composites was as low as 1 per cent for the Boeing 747-400, which was launched in 1988. This figure jumped to 11 per cent for the Boeing 777-200 (1994) before surging to 50 per cent for the newest B787-8 which first flew in 2009.
Building a state-of-the-art capability to design, fabricate and repair composites will position Singapore's industry to serve demand in the future.
Such skills can be built through the many SkillsFuture initiatives in collaboration with polytechnics and the Institutes of Technical Education, including Enhanced Internships where students experience a real work environment, the SkillsFuture Earn and Learn Programme and the SkillsFuture Study Awards. Singapore-based companies must come on board to offer opportunities for the first two schemes to augment the future skilled manpower available to them.
The aerospace engineering sector needs to build on the momentum created by other areas of the industry.
Changi Airport's Terminal 4 will open next year, and Seletar Airport is due to complete its renovation then as well.
The new T4 has already signed up six airlines and will feature a host of new technologies, including automated check-in and facial recognition technology to speed up security procedures.
The upgrade of Seletar will free up capacity at Changi Airport, while enhancing its offerings to pilots in training and private jet traffic. Singapore is also the regional home to aerospace powerhouses such as Rolls-Royce, Pratt & Whitney and local companies including ST Engineering.
It is already clear today that OEM design and production, and increasing use of composite materials, are two trends transforming aerospace engineering.
The industry needs to be proactive to help workers develop the skills and capabilities to seize the opportunities offered.
- The writer is head of the aerospace programme at SIM University.