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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

Exclusive: Inside the UAE factory where parts for the world's superjumbos are finely crafted

The National was granted rare access to the desert manufacturing facility of Strata Manufacturing, where bright Emirati engineers make components for Boeing and Airbus

If you’ve flown on an Airbus A380 or Boeing 787 Dreamliner recently, there’s a good chance some of the parts were made right here in the UAE.

Amid rolling sand dunes in the deserts of Al Ain sits the 31,000 square metre Strata Manufacturing plant.

From just one production line in 2010 there are now 11, with hundreds of workers delivering parts for the world’s most advanced passenger jets.

“A lot of people thought when we started that we were crazy,” says Ismail Abdulla, the chief executive of Strata.

“What were we doing in the middle of the desert? This is impossible. You cannot manufacture these parts in such an area. But against all the challenges – we have.”

Strata has benefitted from the huge deals that Emirates and Etihad has struck with aeroplane manufacturers.

And rather than simply buying in expertise, it has ensured that Emiratis are trained and employed in engineering jobs, as the country diversifies from oil and gas.

The National was granted rare access inside the Mubadala-owned aerospace company to watch rolls of carbon fibre being turned into vital parts for Boeing and Airbus among others.

Flap track fairings for the Airbus A380, vertical fin ribs for the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and wing flaps for the A350 are just some of the parts made here. Strata will also make the complete vertical tail fin for the Dreamliner and parts for the 777X over the next few years.

Ismail Ali Mohammed Abdulla, Chief Executive Officer, explaining the manufacturing of parts for Airbus and Boeing at the Strata Manufacturing facility in Al Ain. Pawan Singh/The National
CEO Ismail Abdulla. Pawan Singh / The National

Flap track fairings fit on the wings and improve efficiency, while ribs provide support within the tail fins. All parts are composite meaning they are made mostly of carbon fibre.

This material is durable, light and makes for more energy-efficient planes. The 787, for example, was the first airframe composed primarily of composite materials and is about 20 per cent more efficient than jets of its size. Honeycomb pieces – paper – are also used to reinforce the composite.

To illustrate this, Mr Abdulla takes a piece, puts it on the ground and walks on it. The honeycomb is unscathed. “You can bend it, twist it,” he says.

The A380 super jumbo components are the largest parts that Strata make. The rolls of carbon fibre are unfurled, precision cut using lasers and compacted, layer on top of layer in a mold. These are then cured in special tunnels where temperatures reach 250C to make them more sturdy.

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“There are different cooking recipes, as we call them,” says Mr Abdulla, who has been in the chief executive role for a year and is only in his 30s. After this, an ultra-sonic inspection ensures there are no air traps or bubbles which could reduce the 25-year life cycle of a part, while X-rays make sure all parts are seamless.

An A380 X-ray can take three hours and if there is an issue, it goes back to the rework area. Last year, Strata shipped more than 9,700 parts or 642 ship sets. A ship set is one dedicated order for Airbus or Boeing. These sets are boxed, craned onto a truck, dispatched to Jebel Ali or Khalifa Port and then shipped by sea to Toulouse and Seattle.

Strata has been successful in encouraging more into the aerospace field. Emiratis make up 51 per cent of the 700 workforce, and of these, 86 per cent are female.

The company offers secondments and two pioneering Emirati female engineers have just returned from America where they worked on the Dreamliner. Strata has also established a research and development arm at Khalifa University to study 3D printing, built links with UAE University down the road and offers scholarship and intern programmes.

A Worker working on the parts for Airbus and Boeing in the Autoclave section at the Strata Manufacturing facility in Al Ain. Pawan Singh/The National
A technician inspects components for Airbus and Boeing planes. Pawan Singh / The National

After the tour, we ask why Al Ain was chosen. Strata took a long view, he says. The Garden City has good logistic links between Abu Dhabi and Dubai’s Al Maktoum airport and it is also part of a broader Nibras Al Ain Aerospace Park beside the airport. “Today the airport is not being used much but [it should] in the future, so we took a long term view.”

Mr Abdulla has been involved with Strata since the beginning and even as a boy was interested in aviation. Born in Dubai, he lived close to the emirate’s airport and now recall the early days of Dubai airshow when he was just seven or eight.

“From our home we would go to the roof and enjoy the show. I cannot deny my love for the majestic 747. It’s just one of the most beautiful planes … there is something different about it.”

Today, Dubai has become the world’s busiest in terms of international passengers and Abu Dhabi will open its huge Midfield Terminal in the next few years.

More people are flying and expansion in markets such as China and India will accelerate this. Only last week, flight-tracking website FlightRadar24 confirmed it had tracked more than 200,000 flights in a single day for the first time ever. The world is going to need a lot more planes and the Strata partnership with Boeing and Airbus makes the UAE well placed to capitalise on this.

Before the interview has closed, given the debate surrounding the future of Airbus’s A380, we ask Mr Abdulla for his take on the future for the superjumbo.

“I would put my vote with people who say the aircraft is before its time,” says Mr Abdulla, who believes the double decker can prove its worth in increasingly crowded skies. “Use an A380 and you can transport two and a half times the amount of people in just one slot. Hats off to that aircraft.”

For now, Strata has billions of dollar worth of contracts with Airbus and Boeing. It does not intend to make full airframes as shipping would be tricky but Strata is looking at manufacturing engine components and even making its own carbon fibre.

“It’s amazing, today I walked into Strata for the 10,000th time and every day it’s still something different. Abu Dhabi and the UAE mean business in the aerospace industry.”

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