In the aerospace industry, December 2000 was a time of harsh ignorance of what was to come. The industry was easing back a bit from the peak business-cycle years of 1998 and 1999. Combined net orders on the books for Boeing and Airbus were at a reasonable 1,100 units. Passengers traveling the skies were subject to security checks but not as rigorous, time consuming or bothersome as they are today. And the entire process of flying to a destination somehow seemed more carefree and enjoyable.
Then came September 11, 2001.
On that day and for several days thereafter, the airspace above U.S. cities fell eerily quiet. Things just didn’t seem right without the occasional roar of an aircraft in its final approach to a municipal or regional airport. The absence of the dull, distant drone of an overhead plane at cruising altitude was missing from the nation’s consciousness, adding a type of sensory deprivation to punctuate its grief.
In those dark days one had to wonder whether commercial aviation would ever again recover. By December 2001, Boeing’s and Airbus’ net orders fell to only about one-third what they were just 12 months earlier. And there they would languish for the next few years. These were indeed slow and difficult years for commercial aviation. Adding to the commercial-aviation market’s challenges in ensuing years was the spread of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and record fuel prices. But, slowly and inevitably, Americans started returning to the skies for their business and personal travel.
By 2005, the Boeing and Airbus order books swelled to 1,800 units. According to the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA), annual sales of aerospace (including military) equipment from 2001 to 2004 ranged from $147 billion to $156 billion, but this number also increased substantially to $170 billion in 2005. AIA’s “likely” projection for 2006 expenditures is about $182 billion.
Looking five years into the future, the Federal Aviation Administration is optimistic. In its Aerospace Forecast for Fiscal Years 2006-2017, it states that the number of passengers that traveled in 2005 “was a record 739 million, up from 690 million the previous year. U.S. commercial aviation remains on track to carry one-billion passengers by 2015. The remaining formidable hurdle for the commercial-aviation industry as a whole will be the price of oil.”
On the military side, the post-9/11 period was a time of preparation for war. Demand for military aircraft and parts increased coincidently with military actions in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere in the world. The increased spending on materiel helped suppliers of military aerospace hardware return to modest growth in the 2002–2004 period. When growth in commercial aviation re-emerged in 2005, suppliers of engine and airframe components became extremely busy. That growth also characterized 2006.
Looking forward on the military sector, continued growth is anticipated in the aerospace area. According to analysts with the Government Electronics and Information Technology Association, the projected long global war on terrorism "will result in a very strong defense top line compared to the 1990s.” GEITA predicts growth in the Air Force budget from $145.6 billion to $169.4 billion in the next 10 years.
We spoke with a few suppliers of forged components to the commercial and military aerospace markets to get a “forging” point of view on where the aerospace market has been, where it is and where it’s headed.
MILITARY HELPS RESTORE GROWTHConsolidated Industries (CI), Cheshire, Conn., has been in the aerospace forging business for more than 60 years. At its 85,500 ft.2manufacturing facility, the company produces closed-die forgings in most metals for commercial and military helicopter and aircraft markets. It also manufactures forgings used in military missile programs. Though the company’s business lies mostly with the aerospace sector, it has recently expanded into land-based turbine components, specialty automotive and truck components and other forgings for customers in niche commercial markets. In aerospace applications the company makes mostly airframe and high-pressure piping components. Typical forgings range in weight from ounces to 100 pounds and may be produced in as little as six-piece batches to 100,000 units per year. About 40% of the company’s present business comes from the military.
Roger D. Briggs, CI’s vice president of sales and marketing, is a 26-year veteran of the forging industry. “Prior to September 11, 2001, everybody had their business plans in place,” he said, “but after that date everything changed.” Briggs, who joined CI shortly after 9/11, said that business in the immediate aftermath was slow, but in 2002 “military expenditures started the company on the way back to growth.”
It took a little longer for commercial aviation to get back on track. As Briggs pointed out, there were 1,200 airplanes in inventory that had to be “worked off” before new orders for forged products started coming in. Then, starting in 2005, commercial aviation started to come back. Boeing, for example, started building more of its standard production aircraft as did producers of smaller regional jets, an emerging aircraft niche.
From the forger’s point of view, 2005 and 2006 have been good years, with spending by commercial aviation coinciding with military aircraft expenditures. It makes for a great business scenario. “However, the cost of raw materials has gone up sharply,” says Briggs. “There are steel shortages because of heavy demand in China, and there have been supply constrictions globally on titanium and nickel-based alloys.” Since raw material represents 30% of the cost of producing a forging, it is easy to see how finished-part prices can rise rapidly.
The widely fluctuating price of energy is another factor nobody can control, yet it is another input that makes up a significant portion of the cost of a finished forging. Nonetheless, Briggs seems optimistic about prospects for forging in aerospace markets. He does not see any significant threat to most aerospace applications for forgings due to the service-critical nature of the applications, which require high metallurgical requirements.
MILITARY, COMMERCIAL AVIATION PEAK SIMULTANEOUSLYWeber Metals Inc. (WMI), Paramount, Calif., has been a supplier of forged parts since 1945 when its founder, Edmond L. Weber, founded an open-die forging business. Early on, Weber saw an opportunity to serve the growing aerospace industry on the West Coast. The Douglas Aircraft Company and Boeing were his major end-use customers. After Weber’s death in 1974, the company was left to his widow, who sold it in 1979 to Otto Fuchs Metallwerke (Meinezhagen, Germany) who remains the present parent company.
Since its inception, the company’s original facility has grown to 284,000 ft.2and currently employs more than 250 people. As an indicator of positive business conditions, the company started 2006 with only 193 employees.
Today Weber Metals supplies a full line of aluminum and titanium forgings for commercial and military aerospace applications, the Shuttle and other space programs and a few jet engine components.
Of today’s business climate for aerospace forgings, WMI’s vice president of sales and marketing, Thom Stys, says: “We are seeing a bit of an anomaly. This is one of those rare times when the commercial and military aviation cycles are peaking ‘in sync.’ These are additive, and it makes the market very strong.”
The experience of Weber Metals in the period after September 11, 2001, is similar to that of other forges.
“The industry was already on the down slope of a peak in the aerospace business cycle,” said Stys. “The events of 9/11, exacerbated problems that were already there. They accelerated the rate of decline and took everything to a low in our industry.”
In 2002, with spending on military hardware on the rise and with the U.S. on a wartime footing, business started to get better. Stys points out that military spending on parts or retrofits for existing aircraft such as C-5s, C-130s, F-18s and Apache and Blackhawk helicopters are generating a lot of business. He points out that of WMI’s aerospace business, about 30% is accounted for by the military.
In late 2003, commercial aviation started coming back. Boeing was building a new generation of 737s and the extended-range 777s. WMI has also been “working very hard” on Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner for the last three years, for which they supply titanium and aluminum forgings.
One of the biggest problems facing forging suppliers today is the escalating cost of raw materials. Shortages of supply or capacity created in part by escalating demand from Newly Industrialized Country (NIC) economies such as China and India caused prices of common aerospace titanium, aluminum and some steel alloys to rise sharply. In the last two years, the price of aluminum has doubled and titanium increased by a factor of six. Similarly, energy, another significant input to the forging process, has roughly tripled in cost during the last two years.
Concerning the future, Stys affirms that the aerospace market will stay strong for the next three to five years if demand for Boeing’s current and future models maintain their current levels. Add to this the strength in demand for new, smaller regional jets and the continuation of existing successful programs at Europe’s Airbus, and one has the makings of continuing strength in the market.
SEVEN-YEAR CYCLEW. Pat Crow Forgings (WPC), Fort Worth, Texas, is a “custom” closed-die shop that has been in business since 1951. It produces forgings of aluminum, carbon steel, high temperature alloys and titanium. Privately held, WPC has grown its business predominately as an aerospace supplier. But in more recent times, WPC has expanded and diversified its business to include products for other commercial and military markets. Within its 100,000-ft.2shop, WPC produces forgings in short runs ranging from a single unit to 1,500 pieces – considered a large run for their aerospace product mix. Their hammers, hydraulic and mechanical presses, screw press and upsetters produce forgings ranging in size from ounces to 500 pounds.
Carole Cathey, executive vice president of WPC, has spent 37 years with the company. She remembers the aftermath of the Twin Towers' collapse as “a catastrophic time. But we were fortunate,” she adds, “that, because of our market diversification, we didn’t have to lay anyone off back then.”
Like her counterparts in the other companies with which we spoke, Cathey recounts how military orders started increasing in 2003. Parts orders for existing aircraft such as A-10s and F-16s, in addition to missile and ordnance components, helped keep the company on an even footing until commercial aviation orders also started to pick up again a year or two later.
Regarding the military aerospace market, Cathey expressed some concern over the recent electoral shift in Congressional control to the Democrats. Her point was that military items sometimes “get postponed with Democrats in office and in election years. Budget approvals sometimes hang in the balance,” she said.
The supply and price of raw materials is of concern at WPC, as it is with all forge shops. Cathey indicates, however, that the “supply of aluminum is pretty stable, but the lead times on some steels is 52 to 60 weeks.” Because WPC manufactures in small runs, local service centers can sometimes keep them supplied with raw materials on demand. But it has to be tough to plan effectively with lead times for some items extending out beyond a full year.
Cathey indicates the aerospace outlook looks good right now but still expresses concern about Congressional politics and their ability to affect military spending. She also feels the 2008 election cycle may also take its toll on just how loose military purse strings will remain.
IN REVIEWAs we interviewed the forging executives mentioned in this article, several common themes emerged. These are summarized below:
- Military spending helped suppliers of aerospace forgings return to growth after the trauma of 9/11.
- The commercial aerospace sector returned starting in 2004, resulting in an even stronger market.
- The aerospace market for forgings is extremely strong at present because demand by military and commercial aerospace segments is peaking at the same time.
- Prices and supplies of raw materials are problematic and are drastically influencing forging costs and pricing structures.
- Prices and supplies of energy, specifically for natural gas and electricity, are fluctuating wildly and often. These also affect cost and pricing structures.
- Today’s strong market is expected to persist for at least a few more years.