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Airlines

Keeping pace

Starling Aerospace has invested in order to maintain its niche position as a one-stop shop for cabins. Ian Harbison reports
 

Steve Swift, Director at Starling Aerospace, says the company tries to maintain a balance between the various markets that it plays in. For VIP and business aircraft, projects tend to be long term, complex, expensive and demand extremely high quality standards. That means staff have to be highly skilled however there is not always a steady work flow.

Fortunately, this work accounts for just 40% of turnover, with the remainder split equally between airlines customers (especially UK regional airlines) and support for OEMs such as Rockwell Collins and Zodiac Aerospace. This maintains the skill base and contract staff can be employed to carry out the more routine work when the specialists are involved in a special project.

Other strengths are the combination of EASA Part 21J design, Part 21G production and Part 145 maintenance approvals; a deep understanding of the rules for testing and certification (especially fire, smoke, toxicity (FST) and staying within 3% of weight limits to avoid recertification); and the ability to do almost all of its work in-house.

The latter includes a complete engineering, design and development service, as well as upholstery and trim shops, composite shops, a machine shop, three paint booths and a decorative trim shop. To this has recently been added 3D CAD rendering software that can produce photographic level renderings. It can also be used with a new five-axis CNC router to produce 3D compound curve tooling directly from design data. The router has a capacity of 3.5m³, which means large scale composites can be fabricated. A four-axis machining centre has also been installed to produce aluminium components for proprietary seating and composite products.

There is also a new automated aqua transfer printing and rinse tank. Acquired from Taiwan, the large 1.2m x 3.4m tank with robotic arm, automated film lay and activation system, allows large components such as side ledges, bulkheads and sliding doors for large VIP jets to be coated in a single dip.

He says transfer printing is quickly replacing veneer. He explains that veneer uses real wood, which is organic and flexible. As the acquer used to protect it is inorganic and inflexible, this inevitably leads to cracking. This is avoided with the transfer print, as is the difficulty of matching wood patterns for repairs. There is also a substrate under the veneer, making the finished item about 3mm thick. Printing onto aluminium thin enough to bend reduces the thickness by half. This technique is currently being used for a cabin refurbishment on a Burkina Faso government aircraft.

Another reason this process is being used to replace real veneer is that Starling Aerospace has developed a formula approved under Part J that meets the new smoke, toxicity and heat release regulations for aircraft cabin interiors, whilst maintaining the wood look, and that it is flexible enough to wrap around almost any shape of cabinetry or seat trim.

The last new piece of equipment is a Gerber automated CNC leather and fabric cutter. A complete hide, dyed to the customer’s colours, is laid on a vacuum table and optically scanned. Using design data, the cutter’s software calculates the maximum number of seat cover parts that can be made, with minimum waste and avoiding any defects in the material.

The company holds extra hides in stock for each customer. While this might seem a cost burden, he says usage can be calculated with some confidence and spare hides can be used to meet requirements from smaller airlines.

At the time of Aircraft Cabin Management’s visit, the Gerber was being used to produce seat covers for an Italian leisure airline, for which the company carried out a major lavatory upgrade in 2015 – useful repeat business. 

Another part of the investment has seen a reorganisation and refurbishment of the shop floor with designated areas for each stage of production. Latest additions include a preparation room for paint, a polish room and a Tedlar room, which will provide a valuable contribution to the repair and overhaul of sidewalls and window panels.  

A good example of how this all comes together was a recent project to upgrade and certify the interior of a Boeing 737-500 of UK aircraft charter operator Oryx Jet. The customer objective was to create a new luxury seating layout and look for the lavatories, galleys, sidewalls and other key focal points, including the window frames, oxygen panels, overhead bin seat number strips and cocktail holders.

The Engineering Design team developed a complex certification plan to minimise the impact to downtime and cost. This was achieved by developing an STC for the seating and cabin reconfiguration, and complimented by a series of Minor Mods approving the changes to the galleys and lavatories.

The company used its in-house facilities to complete all stages of the conversion including the aqua transfer printing. This was used to create a quality walnut wood look effect for the soft close toilet seat, assist handles, amenity towel strips above the vanity basin, and around the toilet. Ultra-leather (faux leather) was then used to cover the back and sidewalls on the lavatory. Smokey mirrors and decorative stone effect flooring was used to further enhance the plush appearance of this area. For design continuity, a combination was used of white faux leather for the side walls and a decorative flow of walnut wood effect for the window frames, oxygen panels, seat rows, cocktail tables on the seat arm rests and even the magazine holders.

The galleys and sidewalls were overhauled, including specialised repairs that were developed and approved outside the standard Structural Repair Manual. They were then recovered with new Ultra-leather and Tedlar and repainted. Formica worktops were replaced and the turn buttons were re-anodised. The upgrade included changing the whole face of the G7 gallery using the same aqua transfer printing wood effect, even down to the assist handles.

Swift says the investments have positioned the company with a level of expertise and capital equipment that allows it to provide a service to clients normally associated with much larger organisations, but with greater flexibility, faster turnaround, and economies of scale.


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