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Sat, Oct 29, 2005

How Was The Engineering On Your Last MG?

Airbus May Hire Engineers From Failed British Car Company

What has the collapse of a British car company got to do with jets? Quite a lot, if Airbus Industrie gets its way. The European commercial aircraft colossus is eyeing the skilled engineers, draftsmen and other technical personnel idled by the collapse of MG Rover this spring.

According to the Financial Times, Airbus has already hired some technical staff that were willing to relocate (they do much of their wing design and development in Filton in the southwest of England, and manufacturing at Broughton in Wales, while the car maker was in Birmingham in the industrial Midlands). But the MG Rover failure has left behind such a pool of underutilized talent that Airbus is seriously thinking of opening a new design center there.

The paper explains that Airbus needs engineering help badly. The company is certifying the A380, developing the freighter version, pushing ahead with its A400M military transport, and designing the A350.

MG Rover was the complete corporate converse of the high-flying Airbus, a European flagship firm. Britain's last independent carmaker was spun off by BMW to a syndicate of Britons in 2001, but never broke even. As its fiscal troubles grew, a Chinese company that had been in joint venture talks withdrew, pulling the last prop out from under the 100-year-old company and idling 6,000 workers.

A big loser was BMW, which was left holding a worthless note for over half a billion dollars. Shanghai Automotive's fear of winding up on the hook to pay back this massive, albeit interest-free loan, was a major factor kept the Asian manufacturer from forming a joint venture with MG Rover.

The MG Rover collapse hurt Tony Blair's Labour in elections, although not enough for his government to fall. So an Airbus design office in the unemployment-ridden Midlands, which would be a highly visible success story in a depressed area, has some political ramifications as well.

Another factor favoring the British site, although one that has not been stated publicly, is that British workers are more productive than those in other major Airbus engineering sites such as Germany or France. In general, Britons work longer hours and expect fewer weeks of vacation than their Continental peers.

Airbus already employs over 13,000 in Britain, of whom 2,000 are in engineering. It had already been trying to hire 200 more engineers in the UK before the bankruptcy of MG Rover created this new opportunity. The company sees the projected Midlands design center as employing 100 engineers, mostly in systems development work. In the long term, the center may grow, and even conduct contract engineering work for non-Airbus customers.

The possibilities for jokes are just about endless, especially for anyone who has ever experienced that peculiar love/hate relationship that comes with owning a British car. Yep, here's a chance to dust off all those "Lucas: Prince of Darkness" jokes and sketches of light switches that allow you to choose among: "on, off, flicker." That'll be wasted on Americans below a certain age, who don't remember when British cars were the #2 imports in the USA, and a drive in one usually involved some combination of getting wet, extinguishing a fire, and being stranded.

But the disciplines of auto and aircraft design are not as much at variance as you might think. Indeed, as automakers have become more sophisticated, many of their business processes, design imperatives like low weight and drag, materials and methods have converged with those used in aeronautical design.

In the United States, many engineers who work in aerospace are members of the Society of Automotive Engineers and present papers to that organization. The systems work that Airbus sees taking place in its new center is particularly accessible to engineers who have been at work in the auto industry.

FMI: www.airbus.com, www.mg-rover.com

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