Aerospace sector in transition period: EDB

A model of Boeing 747 passenger plane.
A model of Boeing 747 passenger plane.PHOTO: REUTERS

Slowdown as new planes need fewer repairs; growth trend strong for middle and long term

Airlines are flying newer planes such as the Airbus 350 and Boeing 787, promising to give travellers a better experience.

This, though, has not benefited Singapore's aerospace sector, which has seen a decline in business for more than two years.

From a high of $8.7 billion in 2012 and 2013, total output fell to $8.3 billion in 2014 and an estimated $8.1 billion last year.

About 90 per cent of the local aerospace work is tied to aircraft maintenance and repairs, and one reason for the slowdown is that new planes do not need many repairs in the first few years of operation.

The good news is that the slide is temporary, said Mr Tan Kong Hwee, director (transport engineering) of the Economic Development Board (EDB). He told The Straits Times in a recent interview: "The industry is in a transition period.

"There are many new planes (entering the market) with new air frames and new engines. For them to require heavy maintenance, or any maintenance at all, takes time. At the same time, because of the lower fuel-efficiency of older aircraft, some are being retired ahead of time."

The growth trend is strong for the middle and long term, especially in the Asia-Pacific, he said.

About four in 10 new aircraft to be delivered over the next two decades will end up in this region, experts said.

The challenge for the Singapore aerospace sector is to ensure that it is ready for the next growth wave.

Mr Tan said: "During this transition, we have to make sure our workforce gains the capabilities needed. This may involve dealing with more advanced materials that we are not used to handling."

Innovation is key, he stressed, if Singapore is to compete with other countries with lower cost structures. He said: "We need to make sure that we can run faster than the rest and be better than the rest."

US engine-maker Pratt & Whitney, which has substantial operations in Singapore, wants to be part of the sector's future growth, said Mr Kevin Kirkpatrick, the company's executive director for after-market operations in Singapore and Taiwan.

Pratt & Whitney has several facilities in Asia, including in Istanbul, Shanghai and Singapore. These employ more than 3,000 people, with about 2,000 based in Singapore alone.

"The development of our workforce in Singapore is central to our long-term growth plan," he said.

Over the years, Pratt & Whitney has invested in new technology to drive productivity and efficiency.

One example is the automated inspection system for components, which has cut inspection time by 40 per cent and increased capacity by 300 per cent.

While checks were previously done using a handheld probe to measure the internal wall thickness of specific components, inspectors now load the parts into a machine that does the job.

To cope with growing work, Pratt & Whitney expects its headcount in Singapore to expand to about 2,500 in the next five years, Mr Kirkpatrick said.

With polytechnics and universities offering about 1,700 places a year in aerospace-related courses, meeting the industry's manpower demands should not be an issue, said Mr Tan.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 22, 2016, with the headline 'Aerospace sector in transition period: EDB'. Print Edition | Subscribe