Hong Kong has one of the world's busiest airports and is home to well-known global carrier Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. But when it comes to aircraft component manufacturing, the Chinese manufacturing hub is still stuck at the gate, with almost no local capability.
A Hong Kong government agency is trying to change that.
Hoping to tap into Asia's growing aerospace market, the Hong Kong Productivity Council is organizing study trips and helping with research to push local manufacturers to seek out niche markets for aircraft parts and components.
``We are targeting the noncritical parts, like cabin interiors and such,'' said Thomas Kwok Keung Lee, principal consultant in HKPC's Manufacturing Technology Department. ``The main problem is not the manufacturing technology, but tapping into the market.''
There is clear potential, with Airbus SAS setting up an assembly plant in Tianjin, China, to make its A320 aircraft. There's also a developing Chinese domestic airliner industry, which includes Shanghai-based AVIC1 Commercial Aircraft Co. Ltd. and its plans to make regional jets.
Chinese domestic air traffic is doubling every five years, and Boeing Co. expects the region to account for 29 percent of new aircraft deliveries through 2026.
But none of Hong Kong's manufacturers are approved original-equipment-manufacturer subcontractors or licensed builders for Boeing or Airbus, the world's two biggest aircraft makers, and they lack business connections and knowledge of aircraft specifications, according to an HKPC report. The aerospace industry has stringent performance requirements, including for fire resistance and light weight.
One Hong Kong-based firm that HKPC hopes can crack the market by bringing new technology to less-sensitive applications is InMold Technology Ltd., which has developed a technique for injection molding better food-service trays using an in-mold lamination process.
Alfred Au, IMT managing director, said his firm has worked with an Asian coating manufacturer he declined to identify, to develop a way to apply a polyurethane coating to provide a sticky surface that will let food trays better grip plates and cups. The coating can be applied in-mold, and saves airlines from having to apply a paper coating to trays, he said.
In an interview arranged by HKPC at its headquarters Sept. 4 during Hong Kong's Asian Aerospace Show, Au said the process - currently being used by one major airline - will be marketed more broadly. He sees opportunities to apply metallic or fake wood coating to plastic as well.
Au also has other ideas. He next wants to apply foam molding processes to make the trays even lighter weight. Once that's accepted, he wants to set up a closed-loop recycling system in which the trays, which are made from a flame-retardant polycarbonate/ABS blend, are molded into new trays.
But, he said that because the aircraft industry is very safety-conscious, new ideas often are met with skepticism until they are proved.
``I've been working on this for three years,'' Au said. ``You can't imagine - just to convince them to try technology that is new to aviation.''
Most Hong Kong manufacturers are not fully familiar with the requirements for manufacturing in aerospace markets, and they need channels such as HKPC and the Hong Kong Trade Development Council, said Joseph Hui, business development manager for additive masterbatch maker and engineering firm CVI Modern Technology Development Ltd. of Hong Kong.
Hui's company helped develop a new airsickness bag made from polypropylene, which he said is recyclable and easier to manufacture than traditional, plastic-lined paper bags, making it more environmentally friendly.
Lee said HKPC also is working with aircraft maintenance firm Hong Kong Aircraft Engineering Co. Ltd. to boost its parts purchases from local firms, and is helping Hong Kong aviation authorities develop their own parts certification program to create standards and opportunities for local industry.
HKPC believes Hong Kong firms have strong opportunities because of technology advantages over mainland Chinese firms, and the council said in its market analysis that there are only about 20 mainland Chinese aircraft part makers that can meet international export standards.
But those conditions could change quickly, it warned.
``Hong Kong manufacturers are likely to have a window of opportunity of around five years,'' HKPC said. ``After that, they would not have the present advantages over the mainland Chinese manufacturers.''