Boeing has cited a worldwide shortage of aerospace fasteners as one of the reasons it has delayed the flight-test program of its 787, which is now in development. One of the main reasons there are shortages today is fastener manufacturers were forced to consolidate their operations earlier in the decade when orders dried up during the last downturn.
"Aerospace is typically a cyclical market with a seven-year run," said Larry Kline, Manager of Product Standards, SPS Technologies, one of the world’s major suppliers of aerospace fasteners. "During the last downturn, some big manufacturers closed plants: SPS did, Alcoa did, LISI did," he added, referring to, respectively, the Jenkintown, PA-based company, the metals conglomerate that expanded into fasteners with the acquisition of Huck and Fairchild, and the Paris-based company that is Europe’s largest fastener manufacturer.
Consolidation wouldn’t be the problem it is today if it wasn’t for the extended up-cycle in commercial aviation.
The 787 is the fastest selling jetliner in the history of aviation, and Boeing has booked about 850 orders since the program was launched in April 2004.
Add continuing strong sales for narrow-body variants from Boeing and Airbus, the first deliveries of Airbus’ A380 super-jumbo, and fairly strong sales for the A350 under development—which at press time was about 340 firm orders—and the entire aerospace supply chain is facing stress to deliver on promised parts and capabilities.
"Nobody predicted that the 787 would be as popular as it is," said Kline. "They’re going to need a massive amount of fasteners."
Rarely has there been a time in aviation history when so many new airframe programs were making their mark at the same time. It’s also unusual that both commercial and military sectors are up simultaneously since historically one is up while the other is down. This time, commercial orders are flowing at the same time that the U.S. Air Force is considering buying F-22s, F/A-18E/Fs, F-35s, V-22s, and C-130Js.
"The whole industry has come back much faster and larger than anyone expected," said Richard Sharpe, Senior Vice President, Global Customers, Alcoa Fastening Systems. "Some resources that were here during the last high-water mark have left the industry."
Sharpe also makes the point that some new programs—the 787, A380, A350, and A400M, Airbus Military’s transport under development—are in many respects leagues away from their predecessors in the use of advanced materials. New airframe construction requires new fasteners. It is the continuing refinement of new fastener systems that has also slowed the quantities reaching the airframers.
"[We all] remember the bad times and don’t want to get caught with plants [we] can’t sell off and so are skittish to invest in new plants," said Kline. "The trend in the industry is consolidation—the big buying up the little. That increases capacity for one company but doesn’t increase capacity for the entire industry."