Abu Dhabi's Strata seeks more satellite manufacturing contracts as it taps into space sector

Exclusive: Composite plane parts-maker in talks with European satellite manufacturers for space work packages, CEO says

The Boeing 787 vertical fin marks an important milestone in the Strata and Boeing partnership. Courtesy Strata. 
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Abu Dhabi's Strata, the manufacturer of composite plane parts, is seeking new space work packages in the UAE and abroad to produce satellite parts, in a move to further diversify its business at a time of uncertainty for global aviation.

The company, owned by Mubadala Investment Company, is in talks with European satellite manufacturers on 3D printing and producing some components in the UAE, Ismail Abdulla, chief executive of Strata, told The National on Tuesday. Strata is also in discussions with the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) for additional projects after an agreement to make parts for the MBZ-Sat.

"Our space ambitions are to be a local manufacturer of space systems in the UAE and for other entities in the world," he said. "The major aim is to localise space manufacturing, that's a step up for us in this market, and to diversify work packages."

Strata's pivot into the space supply chain is part of Abu Dhabi's focus on high-technology manufacturing and the UAE's wider space ambitions. The move also underscores the company's efforts to diversify its operations following an earlier foray to produce personal protective equipment (PPE). This comes as the Covid-19 pandemic plunged the global aviation industry into its worse crisis but also drove demand for PPE.

Strata's venture as a satellite parts maker builds on its aerospace experience as a supplier for the world's biggest planemakers Boeing and Airbus, Mr Abdulla said.

Its diversification into space is linked with the UAE's own plans to localise space manufacturing and the country's ambitious space plans.

"We have the infrastructure, the footprint and some knowledge to build on so we want part of that story," Mr Abdulla said.

The executive said the company's plans to diversify into health-tech are progressing with the set up of a steering committee composed of Mubadala's healthcare unit, Strata and Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi to identify products in high demand that can be made locally.

"Pace-makers are highly demanded, based on these discussions, and we're looking at opportunities for partners to bring in their expertise and we start manufacturing in the UAE," he said.

Mr Abdulla insisted that aerospace is still an important part of Strata's plans.

Our space ambitions are to be a local manufacturer of space systems in the UAE and for other entities in the world

The distribution of Covid-19 vaccines on a global scale will boost passengers' confidence in air travel, he said.

"It will send the right signal for people who didn’t want to travel because of Covid-19, it will give them the courage and comfort to take the vaccine and travel," he said.

Given the lag time after the aviation industry recovers, it could take about two to four years for aircraft orders to pick up, he said.

Next year will be "busy" for Strata, when it hopes to finalise aerostructures and space deals as it engages with several companies, he said.

"2021 will be a solid year for Strata, the discussions we are having now are very positive and lots of entities are engaging with us to introduce in-country value," Mr Abdulla said.

In terms of financing requirements, Strata has secured loans from local banks for working capital this year and the next, he said, declining to provide details.

The executive described his outlook for 2021 as "challenging but optimistic".

The comments came after Strata said it delivered its first Boeing 787 vertical fin – a component that provides stability to the aircraft – to the Chicago-based planemaker.

The delivery, made on December 2, marks the first 787 vertical fin fully assembled outside of Boeing's US facilities, Mr Abdulla told an online press briefing on Tuesday.

"With the Covid-19 pandemic, we faced some complications and challenges, but the team was able to deliver and finish the work on time," Mr Abdulla said during the conference. "Now we celebrate the production of the 787 vertical fin during the most difficult time for the industry."

When it came to the production line, the curveball with the pandemic was historic

Some 50 engineers and technicians are working on the 787 vertical fin production line and, once production ramps up, this will increase to 75 workers by the end of 2022.

Strata Plus, the company's expanded manufacturing plant in Al Ain that assembles the 787 vertical fins, will also see robots working on the shop floor in future.

Among Strata's research and development plans with Boeing, one project will be to introduce robotic drilling in vertical fin production, Mr Abdulla said.

Challenges of completing production during the pandemic included the logistics of sending Strata employees for training in Boeing's facilities in the US and applying strict health and safety regulations in its Al Ain plant.

"When it came to the production line, the curveball with the pandemic was historic," Mr Abdulla said.

Strata signed the contract with Boeing for production of the 787 vertical fins in 2016 during the UK's Farnborough airshow. The vertical fin will be installed on 787 fuselages at Boeing’s North Charleston facility in South Carolina starting in early 2021.

To date, Strata has begun assembly of an additional five 787 vertical fin shipsets, it said in a statement on Tuesday.

As part of Strata's 10-year partnership with Boeing, the UAE supplier also makes 777 empennage ribs, 787 vertical fin ribs and composite empennage ribs for Boeing’s new 777X airplane.