TLD Europe CEO Valentin Schmitt explains how the GSE manufacturer is adding to its product line, while continuing to improve its existing portfolio of ground support equipment. Meanwhile, as group chief operating officer Antoine Maguin notes, the company is also broadening its international footprint
Schmitt is responsible for sales and production across the GSE supplier’s EMEAI region – incorporating all of Europe, the Middle East, Africa and India. He is overseeing expansion in both the company’s manufacturing capacity and its product lines across that area.
In France, the company’s home nation – Schmitt himself is based in Tours – the supplier has continued to expand its manufacturing capacity. A year ago, in September 2014, TLD celebrated the opening of its third home-based factory (the development was actually completed in July 2014). The 7,000 square metre facility (of which 6,000 square metres comprises workshop space, the balance office space) is located in Sorigny, 20km south of Tours and close to another TLD factory at Montlouis sur Loire.
The factory is now “fully up and running”, Schmitt confirms. It is supporting increased production runs of TLD’s aircraft tow tractors (both conventional and towbarless) and the all-new TaxiBot, of which manufacturing of the narrowbody version is due to start at the rate of one per month from September 2015.
Further expansion of the Sorigny facility is expected and TLD has already requested the necessary bureaucratic approvals to develop the plant. Schmitt says that the project, which will take in another 2,500 square metres of workshop space, 2,500 square metres of warehousing and another 1,000 square metres of office space, will be completed in the first quarter of 2017.
Elsewhere, at the end of March, TLD announced that work had begun on expanding the company’s Windsor, Connecticut (US) manufacturing facility. The Windsor plant has been operating for nearly six decades, and today manufactures jet starters, air-conditioning units (ACUs) and ground power units (GPUs), as well as various other specialised equipment for the military market. In fact, as Maguin confirms, GSE for the military market is an important priority for TLD’s US operation. The recent Windsor expansion saw the space devoted there to manufacturing increased to 54,000 square feet (5,016 square metres), in addition to 13,500 square feet (1,250 square metres) of test area – and available warehouse space expanded to 50,000 square feet (4,645 square metres).
The TLD factory in Wuxi, China – only built in 2011 – is also being expanded. The facility, which manufactures loaders, tractors and lavatory and water trucks, was built over 10,500 square metres, but the improvement will see a further 8,400 square metres of workshop, warehouse and office space added. The extension is expected to be completed before the end of this year.
Indeed, production is ramping up right across TLD’s operations, Maguin informs, thanks to growing demand in what is currently a very strong global GSE market. TLD is reaping the rewards in double-digit annual revenue increases. The North American market is especially strong at the moment, he notes (Schmitt points to particularly buoyant demand from self-handling airlines in the US, thanks at least in part perhaps to the lower fuel prices that have added significantly to the margins of American carriers).
Demand from Middle Eastern airlines has also been strong, although business out of Russia has suffered from the rouble exchange rate, while European confidence is starting to rebound and the Chinese market is better than might have been reported by some, the two executives report.
Finding the resources to boost output can bring its own challenges, of course, but it’s a nice problem to have. “We’re definitely on an ‘up’ in what is a cyclical business,” Maguin observes. “But we know it won’t always be like this.”
PRODUCT DEVELOPMENT: SAFETY FIRST
TLD produces a wide range of GSE, including towbarless tractors, conventional tractors, air starters, loaders, GPUs, passenger steps, belt loaders, ACUs, baggage tractors, lavatory and water trucks, trailers and dollies, catering trucks and maintenance platforms. Many of its products within these various lines are being improved, while entirely new models are also being added to the overall offering, thanks at least in part to the strength in demand for GSE in the market right now. TLD has something like 120 engineers working on new products or improvements to existing lines, and the results of its R&D efforts are being seen right across the manufacturer’s product line.
One relatively recent new design that adds value across a number of the TLD lines is the company’s Aircraft Safe Docking (ASD) system. Introduced last year, ASD is designed for belt loaders, loaders and passenger steps. It is described as “simple, reliable and easy to maintain”, and an invaluable answer to those unwanted cases of GSE-aircraft collision that happen only too often on the ramp.
Unlike some of the other GSE manufacturers who have gone down the road of radar-based anti-collision systems, ASD relies on a single 3D camera rather than a range of radars positioned around the GSE. Indeed, Schmitt believes that radar-based anti-collision systems are inherently unsafe, arguing that their default position is that the way ahead is clear unless information to the contrary is received by the radar; should the system be malfunctioning, the GSE operator might not be aware of that and there is a good chance that GSE will impact with the aircraft as a result, he posits.
That is not the case with 3D camera technology, he says. Once the ASD system is switched on as the GSE operator approaches an aircraft, the camera scans the area up to 7 metres in front of the GSE and the speed of the unit is automatically restricted to 5km/h. Once in close proximity to the aircraft (or other object), the speed of the unit is restricted to just 0.7km/h, making any collision unlikely to inflict any serious damage. If there is an impact, however, the system will automatically shut off and a ‘black box’ system will record relevant operational data for subsequent analysis.
The ASD is intended to supervise, rather than replace, the operator. Within the area around an aircraft, the operator remains in control although the ASD ensures that he works the equipment in a safe way. If the system malfunctions and so much as a single pixel of the camera image goes black, ASD will automatically recognise this and take the GSE into safe mode, alerting the operator to the problem and minimising the possibility of any impact. It will also place the GSE in safe mode should visibility (as a result of snow, rain and so on) be sufficiently poor that the system cannot operate.
“All our customers are now talking to us about safety (anti-collision) systems,” Schmitt remarks, confident in ASD’s applicability and popularity. A large fleet of GSE operated by Air France has been fitted with the system, and benefited from it over this last winter. Air France is using ASD on belt loaders, while British Airways has taken delivery of a number of TLD loaders with the safety system fitted.
LOADERS AND TRACTORS
TLD has invested heavily in other improvements to its products. For example, a relatively new high-speed towing tractor, the TPX-200-MTX, has been available since last year. It can push back aircraft ranging in size and weight from an Embraer right up to the B787 ‘Dreamliner’, the A350 and all the big B777s and A340-600. Sales of this new model have been fantastic, thanks in large part to its flexibility, Schmitt observes.
Even more recently, in February this year TLD launched a new cargo tractor, the JCT-40/60. Designed for moving heavy cargo as well as baggage handling, it can pull up to 4,500daN and has a maximum speed of 30km/h. It can be supplied with either a 56kW or a 75kW engine, both of them meeting Tier 3 and Tier 4F emission standards.
Plus, a new loader was introduced by TLD to the market late last year in the form of its TXL-838-reGen. The 7-ton reGen electric cargo loader was first launched in 2009, but this second-generation model has further extended the operating life of the unit; the current model is now able to operate for a whole day without recharging thanks to improved efficiency in the drive system and optimised hydraulic and electrical systems. Its stamina under a single charge offers, TLD says, “superior performance when compared to all other electric loaders”.
The ever-more stringent environmental restrictions being imposed by regulatory authorities around the world have led to major changes in TLD’s product offering. Nearly all of the manufacturer’s diesel-engined GSE is now Tier 4 final-compliant, Maguin says. The reGen also represents just one example of TLD’s move towards developing a wider range of electrical equipment, he confirms.
Competition amongst European GSE suppliers remains intensive. The ever-more stringent demands of customers ensure that the number of effective GSE suppliers remains relatively limited, however, Schmitt suggests. It is still the big European or North American players who dominate the GSE supply market, he would argue.
TLD is continuing to invest in areas other than product development that it hopes will guarantee it retains a competitive edge now and in the future. For example, it has spent heavily of late on its after-sales service capability, especially in the developing world (such as in the expanding African market).
Moreover, that after-sales service provision forms one part of TLD’s wider strategy to ensure that it has a local presence for all its major markets. It certainly seeks to have a significant presence in the same time zone as its primary clientele, and to offer contacts who speak the same language. With that in mind, new offices have been opened in the last year or two in locations across Africa, Russia, Chile and, recently, in Düsseldorf in Germany. The company is still looking at opening new premises elsewhere, Schmitt promises.
As already mentioned, production of the new TaxiBot tug is expected to be starting – as of the time of writing in August – from next month. TaxiBot, the semi-robotic pushback tractor that can be controlled by the pilot from an aircraft’s flight deck and which allows for taxiing with engines stopped, has already undergone some months of operational use at Frankfurt.
Three of the narrowbody aircraft versions of the vehicle have been serving Lufthansa aircraft at the carrier’s home base of Frankfurt-Main International Airport, and production of that version is due to begin at an initial rate of one per month. Meanwhile, the development of a test model of the widebody version is in its final stages at Chateauroux and the certification process for that tractor is expected from autumn this year, extending into early 2016. Lufthansa will be testing – and gaining certification – for the widebody TaxiBot, working with the German flag-carrier’s B747s at an as-yet unconfirmed airport.