Wallonia’s reputation as a destination for avionics innovation is gathering pace, as infrastructure develops around its aerospace cluster and links are forged between research and business.
Think of the aerospace industry and cities such as Toulouse in France and Seattle in the US are sure to come to mind. But there is a lot of sector activity elsewhere, in regions such as Belgium’s Wallonia, which says it is attracting more and more aerospace firms thanks to its flexibility, services, logistics and proximity to European institutions. This has already helped it to create about 6400 jobs in the area and generate an annual turnover of more than €1bn.
The aeronautics and aerospace industry is one of the six sectors that the region has chosen to back through its ‘Marshall Plan’ of economic support. “Aeronautics and aerospace in Wallonia represents some 70% of the sector in Belgium, in terms of turnover,” says Ashley Lyon, aeronautics and space expert at the foreign direct investment branch of AWEX, Wallonia’s foreign trade and investment agency. “A lot of the companies are contractors to major OEMs [original equipment manufacturers] not located in Belgium, which means that 90% of that turnover is exports.”
Aerospace firms are being attracted to set up a base in Wallonia thanks to the development of infrastructure to support them. “Charleroi Airport, which acts as a hub for Ryanair, is in close proximity,” says Mr Lyon. Philippe Suinen, AWEX chief executive, adds: “It was ranked the third best low-cost airport worldwide in the 2012 World Airport Awards.” Being close to Liège Airport is also a plus, according to Mr Suinen. “It is Belgium’s main freight airport and the seventh biggest in Europe,” he says. In addition to the two airports, the Redu European Space Agency station and the European Space Agency Business Incubator Centre are practically on Wallonia’s doorstep.
European aeronautics companies that have set up shop in the region include Safran, Sonaca, Sabca and Thales, as well as US firms such as Pratt & Whitney, AMI Metals, Hexcel and Shur-Lok International.
“The density of aerospace employment pro rata is between that of the UK and France, even though we don’t have an OEM – such as Airbus – in Wallonia,” says Mr Suinen.
“Compared to Germany, France and the UK, the industry is mainly driven by having many customers,” says Mr Lyon, who insists that Wallonia is not held back by its distance from some of the biggest names in avionics. “A company located in Toulouse would have strong links with Airbus, whereas a company that settles in Belgium will have more of a neutral approach, so it could have Airbus as a customer as well as Boeing, Gulfstream, Bombardier and so on. Quite a few companies here put their eggs in different baskets and that mitigates the risk when one market goes down. These companies sub-contract to the local companies, which are themselves sub-contracting to the OEMs, so they can be either tier-one or tier-two companies,” he says.
Both AWEX and Wallonia’s government have put a lot of effort into promoting the aerospace sector in the region. An example of this is Skywin Wallonie, the Belgian aerospace cluster that was created by the Walloon regional government in July 2006 from the merger of two previous clusters, Walloon Aeronautical Cluster and Wallonie Espace. It encourages partnerships between large and small enterprises, universities, research centres and schools, stimulates technological innovation, and works to increase the visibility of Walloon industries abroad.
In the aeronautics sector it is supporting the development of innovative high-tech products by small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Skywin aims to promote its SMEs at an international level, and this requires the creation of new activities in Wallonia, as well as foreign investment.
“Aerospace is an important sector for Belgium,” says Mr Suinen. “We are the fifth biggest contributor to the European Space Agency after France, Germany, Italy and the UK.”
In this sector, Skywin’s priority is the development of applications and related services, as well as earth observation instruments. The cluster is actively supporting technological transfers and spin-offs, especially those involving standard aerospace technologies. As part of Belgium’s national aerospace policy, Belspo, it is also acting as a platform for new technological developments.
Skywin’s research and development projects have three strategic aims:
- more composite: replacing metallic materials with composites to reduce weight, extend component life and reduce environmental impact.
- more intelligent: to better meet the needs of the market and produce advanced, reliable, low-maintenance electrical components that improve navigation.
- more applications and services: with a ‘space’ orientation, this sets out to meet the need for more economical and secure means of transport, more efficient and less energy-consuming logistics, and effective environmental management.
Centred on three large companies – Techspace Aero, Sabca and Sonaca – the region’s aeronautics and aerospace industrial network is comprised mainly of SMEs. Their key areas of expertise include software for multiphysical simulations, high-precision electroerosion, optic systems, moulded and machined honeycomb parts, and engine modules.
The universities of Liège, Louvain-la-Neuve, Namur and Mons have almost 80 departments working in the fields of aeronautics and aerospace. Cenaero and other research centres help to keep the sector buoyant, thanks to the high quality of their research programmes and innovations. “The Marshal Plan is helping to bring the universities and companies together,” says Mr Lyon.
Space firm Amos is based in the science park linked to the University of Liège, and employs 80 people. “This is one of the most well-known universities in Europe and the world for space capacity,” says the firm’s marketing and sales manager, Jean-Pierre Chisogne. “We produce unique pieces. Each request we have obliges us to push the technology and go to the limits. We need access to research, and we have that expertise close to us.”
Paris Air Show
About 40 Walloon firms, as well as AWEX representatives, will be at the Paris Air Show in Le Bourget in June. “We’ll be looking to strengthen existing partnerships, find out more about new developments and meet foreign delegations,” says Mr Suinen.
One of the highlights for visitors will be the revolutionary Venyo flight simulator for the Boeing 737 Next Generation.
Amos will also be attending the event. “We will be sharing a large booth with another company that we collaborate with at the show,” says Mr Chisogne. “By being part of this bigger cluster of companies we can promote our image and access customers. All of our customers and potential customers will be at the show, and we will also have contact with other Belgian companies. There are plenty of opportunities for collaboration in terms of marketing and technology.”
AWEX has been involved in this leading aerospace show since 1995, when it first hosted 18 exhibitors on the Belgian stand. Since then its involvement has grown, culminating in this year’s event where the stand will have 59 exhibitors; 39 Walloon and 20 Flemish.
As the aerospace industry expands in the region, Mr Suinen declares: “The sky is not our limit.”
The cost of this report was underwritten by the Wallonia Export & Investment Agency. Reporting and editing were carried out independently by fDi Magazine.