India Touts Aerospace Engineering, Manufacturing

This article first appeared in Aviation Week & Space Technology.

India is spending billions on defense procurements, bringing with them massive packages of offset work for its industry, but the country's ambitions to become a major player in commercial aerospace manufacturing are still in their early stages.

Already significant providers of engineering services, including complete aerostructures design packages for Western airframers, several of India's private-sector companies are making a push into manufacturing.

But progress is being hindered by the lack of a national vision for aerospace, such as exists in China, and the absence of a complete "ecosystem" of suppliers to support the emerging major players such as the Mahindra and Tata groups.

The main drivers of India's aerospace industry growth have been major military programs and the offset obligations attached to offshore procurements. But more companies are looking for not only market access to India and more widely to Southeast Asia, but also a partner with engineering and manufacturing capability.

"What is bringing work into India is changing," says Ramaseshan Satagopan, head of the aerospace engineering practice at Mahindra Satyam, the Indian conglomerlate's engineering-services subsidiary. "Five to 10 years ago, cost was the major thing driving outsourcing. Now market access in this region is the prime driver, offset-related work is second, and third is cost and the availability of capability."

Outside perceptions of India's aerospace industry are that it is bureaucratic and painfully slow in developing aircraft that, when produced, fall short of the customers' requirements and the standards of Western manufacturers. While not disputing that characterization, Satagopan argues the view from outside does not recognize the challenges India has faced in building an industry.

"India's aerospace industry is only 40-50 years old in terms of technology, and still far way in terms of very advanced technologies in sensors, etc.," he says. "In engines there is R&D going on, but we have yet to see a final product. Engines are 3-4 times more complex than other technologies, and do not come cheap. We have still to catch up."

The Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), which is to become fully operational with the Indian air force this year after almost 20 years in design and development, is the country's most ambitious indigenous aerospace program since the HF-24 Marut jet fighter of the early 1960s, Satagopan points out.

In addition to the 40-year gap between first flights of the Marut and Tejas, India was hit by U.S. sanctions following its 1998 nuclear tests, which blocked access to many of the offshore technologies planned for the LCA. The arms ban forced India to develop its own alternatives, and delayed the program further.

While the Tejas Mk. 1 is overweight and underpowered, necessitating an improved Mk. 2 version, India through its development has acquired valuable experience with composite structures, fly-by-wire flight controls, glass cockpits and other technologies. This is expertise that can be accessed by private-sector industry to help it become a global player, says Satagopan.

"We had a lot of technologies thrown at us [with LCA]. Composites had never been developed in India, and it was the first time India had to develop its own critical hardware and software for fly-by-wire control," he says. "We know it takes time, but today India can do co-cured and co-bonded carbon-fiber wings. We developed that on our own, and understand the design, manufacturing and certification process."

The LCA program is managed by the government's Aeronautical Development Agency, formed for the task in 1984. State-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. (HAL) heads development and production. The Indian air force has ordered 40 series-production Tejas Mk. 1s, with deliveries to begin this year.

Bengaluru-headquartered HAL has designed and developed most of India's indigenous aircraft and license-produced those acquired from overseas. So, HAL is almost solely responsible for the industry's reputation for slowness. The company is tackling this problem by forming joint ventures with the private sector.

There have been a few forays into civil aviation in the past (see, but HAL has focused on military aircraft and its workload is growing. In addition to the Tejas, the company produces the indigenously developed Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopter and its armed version, the Rudra, and is flight-testing an attack derivative, the Light Combat Helicopter. HAL is also developing the smaller, single-engine Light Utility Helicopter, with a first flight planned this year.

At the same time the state-owned manufacturer is license-producing the Sukhoi Su-30MKI heavy fighter and BAE Systems' Hawk advanced jet trainer. A contract has yet to be signed, but the company also is expected to produce 108 of the 126 Dassault Rafale Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) planned for the air force.

HAL also produces avionics, engines and systems. If there is an area where India still struggles, it is engines. Intended for the LCA, the Kaveri afterburning turbofan under development by India's Gas Turbine Research Establishment is short on thrust and has been deemed unsuitable to power the Tejas. But India may yet use the engine in unreheated form to power a planned unmanned combat aircraft.

LCA is not the only indigenous program to have problems. HAL's HTP-32 Deepak basic trainer has been grounded since 2009 after crashes caused by engine failures, forcing India to buy Pilatus PC-7s. Now the company is struggling to complete development of the HJT-36 Sitara intermediate jet trainer, which first flew in 2003. HAL performs some commercial subcontract work, including Airbus A320 passenger doors, Boeing 777 flaperons and Embraer Legacy 450/500 doors.

The Indian government has made several recent moves to open up its aerospace industry, to improve performance and increase competition. These steps have begun with the privatization of HAL; the government put an initial 10% stake up for sale this year. New Delhi has also changed the offset rules, allowing foreign companies to work with the private sector and not just state-owned entities, says Lakesh Srivastava, CEO of Tata HAL Technologies.

Private-sector companies are being encouraged to work with India's national laboratories as well. "The labs are still a bit bureaucratic," Srivastava says. "But they are allowing the private sector to come in with foreign OEMs, which qualify with a multiplier for offsets, to force performance into the system."

One of the main labs is the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research's National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL). Also headquartered in Bengaluru, NAL is working to establish an Indian civil aviation industry. Initially, NAL developed the Hansa, an all-composite two-seater that was commercially produced by Pune-based Taneja Aerospace and Aviation Ltd. (TAAL) for sale to India's flying clubs.

Subsequently, NAL designed the Saras, a 14-seat twin-turboprop aimed at the utility market. The first prototype was overweight and the second crashed, but a third is expected to fly this year with increased use of composites to reduce weight, more powerful Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-67A engines and more advanced avionics. TAAL produced parts for the prototypes. The Indian air force has ordered an initial 15.

In its first public-private partnership, NAL teamed with Mahindra Aerospace to develop the C-NM5, an all-composite five-seat light aircraft. Acknowledging the delays endemic in Indian programs, prototype certification work was moved to Gippsland Aeronautics in Australia -- a general-aviation manufacturer acquired by Mahindra in 2010. The prototype C-NM5 began flight tests in Australia in September 2011.

NAL and HAL have been working since 2007 on plans to develop the 70-seat Regional Transport Aircraft (RTA). Satagopan sees the yet-to-be-launched program, along with plans to develop indigenously the stealthy Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), as keys to taking the industry's capability to the next level.

"They are still mulling the regional transport. It will happen, but when is the question," he says. Satagopan sees an opportunity for the federal government "to get into a public-private partnership role . . . to make it happen." New programs such as RTA and AMCA are needed to build out the Indian aerospace ecosystem, he says. "What is missing today is we have no big Tier 1 suppliers apart from HAL. So how do we create Tier 1s like GKN [Aerospace] and Spirit [AeroSystems]?"

Manufacturing is spreading beyond HAL, boosted by offset work. Tata Lockheed Martin Aerostructures, a joint venture with the U.S. manufacturer, delivered its first C-130 center wingbox in August 2012. Tata Sikorsky Aerostructures is another joint venture, which began delivering S-92 cabins to the U.S. helicopter maker in 2010. Both ventures were established in Hyderabad by Tata Advanced Systems, with green-field facilities designed and constructed by Tata HAL Technologies, another joint venture.

Tata HAL Technologies was formed in 2008 to combine Tata Technologies' engineering-services experience with HAL's design and manufacturing expertise. "We took domain skills and leadership capability from HAL, plus capital, and Tata was responsible for scaling that," says Warren Harris, global chief operating officer for Tata Technologies.

The joint venture sells engineering services for aerostructures to markets outside HAL, using designers in Tata's "delivery centers" in Bengaluru, Europe and the U.S. "Business development is by Tata and delivery responsibility is through Tata and the joint venture," he says. Tata HAL delivers a complete design package, says Srivastava, including stress analysis, certification reports and engineering support through the first article produced.

Although to date much of the work placed with Indian industry by foreign OEMs has involved manufacturing, "increasingly we are seeing requests for proposals and work packages for engineering services," Harris says. The MMRCA procurement will accelerate the trend, he says, as Dassault's legacy data is migrated to the platform that will be used to develop and produce an India-specific variant of the Rafale.

Tata HAL is working on a major aerostructures design package for a European airframer, while Mahindra Satyam recently completed the structural design of "high-end primary fuselage structure" for another European airframer, says Satagopan. The scale of the work required Mahindra to develop the capability to manage large programs. "We are one of the few companies that could have done such a large work package successfully," he says. "Now we are getting similar work packages from other OEMs."

Harris says India's aerospace engineering-services business is forecast to grow from $850 million in 2011 to $5 billion by 2022. "We are working with most of the large aerospace OEMs," he says. "The driver to tap into India increasingly is the need for resources and talent, because the graying of the workforce in Europe and the U.S. means there are not enough engineers."

While its engineering capability has grown to equal that of Europe and the U.S., Harris argues, India's industry offers some unique capabilities. "India has grown out of scarce resources and its people are frugal-minded. Their engineering solutions are predicated on low cost. That can't be replicated in Europe or the U.S."

And as the industry looks set to grow while the Indian government moves ahead with massive procurements in defense and other sectors, it is expected to do so in partnership with foreign OEMs. "We are seeing a lot of opportunities in related areas such as battle management and homeland security," says Satagopan. "It is not clear that there is a single solution provider in India. Large and long-term partnerships are required."

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