As the aviation industry counts down to the 2015 Paris Air Show, the Belgian region of Wallonia is reflecting on the growth of its air and space industries in the two years since the last show. 

The region is home to the lion’s share of Belgium’s aerospace and aeronautics firms. “The aviation industry has a fundamental place in the economy of Wallonia and is one of its greatest assets for the future,” says Arnaud Collette, press officer at the Wallonia Export and Investment Agency (AWEX). “It is central to Wallonia’s economy, and has developed to take advantage of the existence of the region’s metallurgical industry and the local network of specialised subcontractors in areas such as precision mechanics and weapons.”

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Today, Wallonia’s aviation industry employs more than 6500 people directly with an annual turnover of about €1.5bn. Major names operating locally include Techspace Aero, Sabca and Sonaca. Its aeronautics industry – with a turnover of €1.25bn and 5100 employees – is mainly focused on aircraft engines and structure, equipment, simulation and training. Its space industry – which has a turnover €250m and 1400 employees – is mainly focused on equipment for satellite payload and launchers, system exploitation and space application.

The region has also become home to many SMEs that service the needs of the sector, such as companies that provide multiphysics simulation software, high-precision electrical discharge machining, optical systems, moulded and machined honeycomb parts and engine modules. “Companies in Wallonia contributed to the production of the first Airbus 380: the leading edges of the wings and flaps and the nose upper shell [were done by] Sonaca, part of the floor [was done by] Sabca, and the low-pressure compressor for the GP7200 engine [was done by] Techspace Aero,” says Mr Collette.

R&D drive

The region’s aviation industry is underpinned by leading research centres and universities. The universities of Liege, Louvain-La-Neuve, Namur and Mons have almost 80 departments working in the fields of aeronautics and aerospace. Research centres such as Cenaero also support SMEs as well as global industries.

Wallonia’s aviation sector is centred on the Skywin aerospace cluster, which combines the Walloon Aeronautics Enterprises and Wallonie Espace. Skywin is a group of companies, training centres and research units engaged in public and private partnership and building synergies around common and innovative projects in the region. It has more than 130 members including more than 90 SMEs.

SMEs can tap into this networking hub to find partners that will enable them to do essential R&D. Skywin’s R&D projects have three strategic priorities: to monitor and anticipate the evolution from metallic materials to composites; to better meet the needs of the market for more electrical components; and to meet future needs for more economical and secure means of transport, more energy efficient logistics and effective environmental management. 

Since 2007, Skywin has facilitated about 50 projects. Projects include bringing existing simulation tools into an integrated design environment to optimise components; the generation of earth observation tools; designing innovative opto-mechanical systems; and training and skills development. Through its past 10 calls for projects, Skywin is currently managing 15 R&D, investment or training projects, all of which feature strong involvement from the region’s SMEs.

Skywin is looking to co-operate with the Korean Aviation Defense Industry Export & Investment Project. This aims to investigate potential synergies between the two organisations, drawing in particular on the Sacheon aerospace cluster in South Korea. In turn, collaboration could be developed in R&D programmes as well as in industrial co-operation, which could see South Korean industries establish partnerships and become part of the supply chain for the Walloon aerospace industry.

New investment

“Since the last Paris Air Show, [investment promotion agency] Invest in Wallonia has attracted eight new foreign aerospace companies,” says Ashley Lyon, aeronautics and space expert at the IPA. “These firms operate mainly in the fields of satellite applications, hardware/software for space onboard equipment and the supply of composite materials.”

Wallonia’s strengths in transport and logistics have also encouraged aeronautics firms to invest in the region. According to Mr Lyon, many companies have been involved in exploring solutions for the distribution of new and spare parts over the past 10 years. “Coupled with the specific fiscal rules in Belgium, local subsidies and the network of specialist companies in the region, this presents as an attractive overall package to the investor,” he says.

“For example, Locus Traxx Worldwide Europe, a joint-venture between Vitrociset Italy and Locus Traxx Worldwide USA, set up base in Wallonia in 2014, creating 40 new jobs. Furthermore, six foreign equity aerospace companies have reinvested in Wallonia since 2013, creating new employment. Among these are Techspace-Aero and Thales Alenia Space.”

Spacebel boost

Several major deals have been signed in the past two years, including the January 2014 Spacebel contract to supply Vietnam with the Vietnam Natural Resources, Environment & Disaster Monitoring satellite Earth observation system. The satellite will be launched in 2017. The industrial consortium led by Spacebel comprises several Belgian aerospace companies: AMOS, QinetiQ Space, Deltatec, the Space Centre of Liege and VITO, which will be developing and validating the flight and the ground phase. The project also includes a training programme for the Vietnamese engineers in charge of receiving and analysing satellite data, in partnership with the University of Liège.

The satellite will be placed in a Sun-synchronous orbit for a five-year observation mission. It will allow Vietnam to strengthen its ability to monitor deforestation, river and maritime pollution, flooding, agricultural and fishery activities and the effects of climate change.

During the 2015 Paris Air Show, Wallonia will continue to grow its international relations. As part of its collaboration with Quebec, the Consortium for Research and Innovation in Aerospace in Quebec and Skywin will announce a cross-technology mapping project. Relationships with other regions will also be strengthened during the event, including the signing of a memorandum of understanding with LuxInnovation/Luxembourg Space Cluster, as well as the extension of relations with the EMC2 French industrial cluster.

Costs of this reporter were underwritten by AWEX. Reporting and editing were carried out independent by fDi Magazine.