Faced with a growing bottleneck in the aircraft interiors industry Recaro Aircraft Seating is among a raft of companies partnering with colleges and universities to attract would-be engineers to the sector.
“We offer a lot of internships. We offer Master’s and Bachelor’s Thesis, apprenticeships and vocational training. And we have exchange programs with colleges and universities,” says Recaro Aircraft Seating Americas director of engineering Dr. Holger Friehmelt.
Even though “there are good engineers out there”, says Friehmelt, “it takes some time to train someone to understand the environment in an aircraft cabin. It is far different than the interior of a car or the interior of a train. So you cannot simply take someone who is a good car or train interior designer and immediately put him or her on an aircraft cabin job; it takes at least a few months to bring them up to speed on all the different requirements and specialties of our business.”
Complicating matters, he says, is the fact that there are still not a lot of opportunities to learn about aircraft cabins at colleges and universities “so when engineers finish their degrees, they might not know about these opportunities yet. So they need to be trained on the job. This is exactly what many companies in the [aircraft interiors] industry are doing.”
Friehmelt’s comments echo a sentiment recently expressed by Qatar Airways VP aircraft programs Syed Masroor Hasan, who said a shortage in aircraft interiors engineers was putting pressure on the aerospace supply chain.
“This does link back to the statement from Qatar. [The bottleneck] is to some extent related to the lack of experienced people because we need to train and teach and educate those people first before they can officially work,” says Friehmelt. But a dearth of engineers is not the only problem facing the industry. “What aggravates the situation is that new regulations are popping up on fairly short notice; that is putting a lot of burden on the cabin furnishing companies,” he says.
One such regulation is the FAA’s advisory circular AC-21-49, which describes the new acceptable means to gain approval to install electronic components integrated in seats on aircraft. Before it was issued, the IFE supplier worked with the OEM through seat certification. Now that process rolls under Technical Standard Order (TSO), which needs to be applied before the seats are shopped to the OEMs.
Working agreements between IFE and seat makers have been drafted, and are now “an established process”, says Friehmelt, noting that the “first programs have been delivered under this rule”.
He explains: “It certainly represented a change in philosophy in how the seat supplier and how the IFE supplier work together because the IFE supplier has to give some information to the seat supplier. The documentation that the seat supplier needs to carry under TSO certification relates to the mechanical properties and environmental properties (is the monitor water proof, for instance), but it does not include proprietary IFE information like the design of the circuit boards or the software that runs in those smart [integrated] IFE systems. That exchange of documentation and information does not put the seat supplier in a position to copy that IFE system, but of course there was a learning process to build that mutual trust to submit the paperwork under one TSO.”
AC-21-49 is just one of myriad examples of new protocol that must be followed by seat makers. For instance, says Friehmelt, suppliers to new-design aircraft, such as the Airbus A350 XWB and Boeing 787, must contend with new interfaces. “The seat tracks – those rails in the seat bottom that the lavatories and seats are attached to – are different on the A350 compared to previous Airbus models because they are submerged. The 787 seat track is different than anything we’ve seen before, so even though they are not major things, it adds, up. Here is another change; there is another change. Adding up those new requirements, we end up with a large number of requirements and constraints.”
Consequently, he says, in the world of cabin furnishings the bottleneck “is already serious” and the industry “can’t afford to see it grow”.
“But then again, that will take extra resources and extra effort [on the part of the industry]. It will take more staff, with more expertise, more training and more communication between all parties to overcome or improve the situation.”