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Wallonia’s aerospace cluster Skywin cruises into Paris Air Show

23:53 01/09/2017

Amid the corporate jets, the army helicopters and the flying cars paraded on the tarmac at Le Bourget Airport outside Paris in June, there was a corner of Wallonia that was enjoying a moment in the sun. Rubbing shoulders with the Boeings, Airbuses, Learjets and Rolls Royce engines at the Paris Air Show were 54 aerospace companies from a region just a two-hour drive away, making names for themselves in areas as diverse as avionics, composite manufacturing, 3D printing, software, drones, wing parts, pilot training and space telescopes.

These companies gathered at Le Bourget under the banner of Skywin, the high-tech initiative that is quietly changing Wallonia’s economic branding. “It may surprise people to hear that Wallonia is doing well in the aerospace industry,” says Etienne Pourbaix, Skywin’s managing director. “We’ve been able to help people come together on projects in many aerospace areas, and we have built up an industry that is starting to become known around the world.”

Skywin is Wallonia’s cluster for aeronautics and aerospace, gathering start-ups and established companies, along with researchers. It covers an industry that accounts for 7,000 jobs in the region and generates €1.6 billion in annual sales, with about 80% of them in aeronautics and 20% in aerospace. Set up in 2006, the network gathers five main regional players including Alcatel Etca, Sabca, Sonaca, Techspace Aero, Thales Communications Belgium and a large group of innovative SMEs working in engines, structures, systems and equipment technologies.

The key to Skywin is that it brings the companies, training centres and research units together and funds research in public and private partnership. The idea is to build synergies around common and innovative projects. Since 2006, Skywin has labelled 72 projects for a global budget of €225 million.

Skywin also has established a strong partnership with a dedicated aeronautics training centre, Wallonie Aerotraining Network, or WAN. The training sessions cover areas like aircraft and equipment design, product manufacturing and ‘soft skills’ like communication, adaptability, teambuilding and creativity. It has provided more than 200,000 training hours, and around three-quarters of trainees find a job in aerospace.

The politicians, generals, celebrities and aviation buffs who come to Le Bourget gasp at the slick machines on the ground and the dazzling flight displays overhead.

But the main reason for coming is to buy products, and Skywin gives the Walloon firms huge visibility as part of the network of connected companies. “This year we have fifty-four participants in Le Bourget, up from forty-eight in 2015,” says Pourbaix.

“Frankly, after talking to other clusters in other countries, I can say this has given an image of dynamism, showing we want to move ahead.”

While each of the Skywin partners had a stand in the main hall, they were also able to entertain clients at a special chalet on the Bourget airfield. “We had 150 lunches and dinners each business day at the chalet, which proved to be an exceptional tool for hospitality.”

There are 144 members of Skywin, of which 111 are companies (83 SMEs and 28 large firms), 23 research centres, two training centres, and eight agencies and associations. It is organised around six strategic headings:

• composite materials and processes
• metallic materials and processes (including additive manufacturing process)
• embedded systems ( for aeroplanes, satellites or drones)
• airport services
• space and drone applications and systems
• modelling and simulation (as transverse orientation)

A key area is materials for the aerospace industry. Weight has always been an essential concern for airplane designers, and new lightweight materials have emerged in recent years. Even though metals are being used less in planes, Skywin has promoted new applications for aluminium (which accounts for 60% of the Airbus A380’s weight) and titanium.

The research efforts look at improving their strength, temperature capability, and low-density forms; developing alloys like aluminium-lithium and mixtures with cadmium and magnesium; and developing bonding, welding and moulding methods.

When it comes to other composite materials and processes, the research aims to improve strength and longevity, develop new materials to withstand higher temperatures, use new additives like green fibre, and develop processes like off-autoclave moulding.

Etienne Pourbaix, a civil engineer from Louvain-La-Neuve, has been Skywin’s managing director since 2011. He highlights the emergence of Walloon SMEs in material science over recent years, with nine funded projects linked to composite materials.

“We help businesses to evolve from research projects to real applications,” he says. “I’m proud to see SMEs get involved in major European consortiums.” He also points to Skywin’s success in helping to build Wallonia’s space industry. “The space sector is quite scientific and institutional. We can help them develop a business mindset, about how to make money,” he says. “Space development has now changed completely.”

But Skywin’s main achievement, Pourbaix says, is to nurture a high-tech industry, which is now flowering. “We showed that there was an aerospace research and development eco-system where people in the sector could share ideas,” he says.

And it has led Skywin to the airfield where Charles Lindbergh landed in 1927 after his historic flight from New York to Paris. “We had very positive responses from Bourget,” Pourbaix says. “We have been able to prove that Wallonia is a player in the aerospace sector.”

Helping 3D printers fit the mould

Any-Shape is a Flemalle-based 3D printing company that makes parts for highly demanding industrial applications. CEO Roger Cocle says Skywin was invaluable to his company’s launch, but it was not the only reason it developed. “The idea behind Skywin is to develop research projects,” he says. “Skywin does not create start-ups. But it does put the companies together so they can get commercial partners and government subsidies for research and development.

Although the sector is new, Any-Shape already has many applications for clients, which include:

• selective laser melting (SLM), where a high-power laser beam creates 3D metal parts in
aluminium, titanium, steel and Inconel (a nickel alloy with chromium and iron)
• selective laser sintering (SLS), where lasers create plastic parts by melting fine polyamid powder with alumide (a material consisting of nylon filled with aluminium dust) or glass beads
• multi-jet printing (MJP) systems, which use high-performing plastic for prototypes, mock-ups or patterns for silicon moulds
• reinforced plastic with micro carbon fibres, fibreglass, carbon fibre and Kevlar fibre

Cocle spent four years at Skywin before creating Any-Shape. During that time, he saw that 3D printing was an emerging technological sector, but also that there were no major 3D industrial projects in Belgium. “I felt this was an area we needed to be in,” he says. “It’s not enough to buy a 3D printing machine – you have to do more. Any-Shape offers a lot of 3D options, and now we aim to be one of the top ten players in Europe over the next three years.”

He says Skywin has been focused on the skills that the Walloon aerospace sector has to master over the next few years if it is to remain competitive. “And they open doors: they set up meetings with business executives from big names like Airbus, Boeing and Thales,” he says.

Skywin boosts Safran’s research

Many companies in the aerospace sector are already investing heavily in research, but Skywin gives a further boost to their efforts, according to Vincent Duprez, the innovation director of Safran Aero Boosters.

Safran Aero Boosters is a Belgian subsidiary of the Paris-based Safran, which builds aircraft and rocket engines. It’s a world leader in its four product lines: low pressure compressors (boosters), engine oil system equipment, space valves and turbojet test benches.

With a workforce of 1,500 and an annual turnover of around €675 million, Safran Aero Boosters already reinvests between 15 and 20% of its annual turnover into research and development – or more than €100 million. Although those investments are financed with its own money, Skywin funding is a much-needed extra, Duprez says.

“Skywin funding is often an incentive to start projects with higher risk,” he says. “Skywin also enables the Walloon industrial network, which includes small and large companies as well as start-ups, and research centres. This facilitates the creation of powerful associations to work on specific themes, and associations where each member sees a concrete interest in its field of activity.”

Duprez points to Skywin support for projects on advanced technologies such as embedded systems, modelling, simulation, advanced materials (composite and metal alloys), aerospace and drone applications. “It is difficult to measure the exact impact of these Skywin projects, but it is clear that it is a way to accelerate research and networking projects at Safran Aero Boosters,” he says. The company now files more than 30 patents each year.

Although Wallonia is known for its coal and steel industry, Duprez says the aeronautical sector has always been strong in the region. “That is why Skywin was created: to consolidate the sector and create jobs,” he says.

He points to Industry 4.0, the move towards automation and data exchange in manufacturing technologies, and says that both Safran Aero Boosters and Skywin are embracing it. “We are strongly committed to Industry 4.0,” he says. “With the support of Skywin, we are promoting this spirit in Walloon SMEs so we can continue to rely on and supply a network of successful Walloon suppliers and deploy them in accordance with the principles of the extended supply chain.”

Putting Wallonia’s industry in focus

Skywin has been a multiplier, helping to enhance Wallonia’s already innovative businesses reach further, according to space telescope manufacturer AMOS. AMOS, or Advanced Mechanical and Optical Systems, is based at Liège Science Park and makes ground-based professional telescopes for astronomy, space instrumentation and optical components. “Skywin stimulates networking between AMOS and other Belgian players as well as space clusters from other countries,” says Xavier Verians, AMOS’s business development director. “It allows us to extend our network of contacts and business opportunities.”

Verians says that although Wallonia has long been considered an industrial region, it is now teaming up with new companies at the forefront of aerospace technology. “The fact that people today do not associate Wallonia with cutting-edge technology means that we still have work to do to promote our skills and capabilities,” he says.

But he says the situation is changing, thanks to Skywin and other regional initiatives. “Wallonia is quite active in promoting its skills. AWEX is very active in that respect, too. In some sectors, Belgium and Wallonia are already well known, including space. For example, we built the ESA’s PROBA-V satellite for global vegetation monitoring that recently provided images of the forest fires in Portugal.”

This article first appeared in WAB (Wallonia and Brussels) magazine

Written by Leo Cendrowicz