There is a valley in Hlubočky near Olomouc. There is a forest in that valley. And in that forest there is a huge factory of the American company Honeywell, whose seven hundred employees here manufacture and repair aircraft engines for the most famous machines of the current aviation industry – including parts for the auxiliary engine units of the F-35 supersonic fighters, which the Czechia recently chose as a successor to the Gripens.
“When you fly somewhere on vacation, you are undoubtedly sitting in an airplane whose auxiliary engine unit contains parts manufactured here in Hlubočky,” says the head of Honeywell Aerospace Olomouc, Martin Šebesta. For example, the basic model of the auxiliary power unit (APU) 131-9, which you can find in the vast majority of Airbuses and Boeings, is produced here.
Thanks to the APU, the parts of which were made at Honeywell in Hlubočky, the tragically famous emergency landing of the Airbus A320 of Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger with one hundred and fifty people on board on the surface of the Hudson River in New York in 2009 did not end in tragedy.
“After a collision with a flock of birds, both engines of the plane went out,” describes Michal Jorníček, a senior manufacturing engineer at Olomouc’s Honeywell. “The APU is an additional source of power that keeps the aircraft going before they start the big engines – and when the engines went out in this case, the APU allowed the pilot to still control the aircraft.”
Today, the factory in a wooded valley near Olomouc takes place both primary production and aftermarket, i.e. engine disassembly, general repairs and replacements. Production makes up ninety percent, aftermarket ten.
“We manufacture static engine components here, with ninety-eight percent of all parts going from there to Honeywell Aerospace headquarters in Phoenix. There, engines are assembled from them on the assembly line,” explains Šebesta. At the same time, the head of Honeywell in Olomouc does not hide his high ambitions. In the long term, he would like to see assemblies for the European market done right here.
The Olomouc Honeywell team will definitely be patient with the vision of growth and new opportunities. “When there is a need for new engines, we want to be in a position, like Honeywell, that the order will end up on our table,” says CEO Šebesta. “We want to be one step ahead of others and we want to choose.”
At the same time, Olomouc Honeywell has a strong enough position for this. In the area of combustion chambers for engines, the professionals from Hluboček are already setting the trend today.
From pipe to pipe
“Our history begins in 1951, when the aviation division was established in the local plants of the home appliance manufacturer Mora Moravia,” says director Šebesta. “Everything that has been going on in Czech aviation since then has involved people from this invisible valley.”
How did the aviation division appear at the manufacturer of kitchen equipment? “When jet engines began to be created, it was necessary to press sheet metal – and Moravia was the closest to that, which pressed sheet metal for stoves,” he explains.
There is a nice story about it: “In the drawings for the Russian Mig, there was a rura, which means a chamber; and when they were looking for where they would make it, according to this legend, they came across the fact that ruri, which means ovens, are made in Moravia,” says Šebesta. “Be that as it may, they really found the necessary technology here: forming, pressing, sheet metal work. That was the basis on which they built the secret air division.’
The portfolio of local production has grown since then, but has basically remained true to its origins. After the revolution, when it was decided how to survive, aluminum barrels for breweries and titanium bicycle frames were also made here (which were also used by the Czech team at the Olympics), but in 1996 the factory returned to the aviation industry – first by signing a cooperation agreement with Honeywell, which bought the entire company in 2002 and the name was officially changed.
This February, the company celebrated twenty years under the Honeywell banner. In two decades, many Czech companies managed to grow up on it as subcontractors. The most visible of them is Seko Aerospace, and Olomouc’s Sterch cannot be overlooked either. According to the publicly available mandatory reports of the company, Honeywell’s sales in Hlubočky last year amounted to 140 million dollars, this year they intend to exceed 160 million dollars.
In the factory in the valley, to which many employees arrive every morning through the forest by bike from Olomouc, today parts for the engines of transport planes, as well as business jets and American military equipment are produced. “We also produce parts for the auxiliary engine unit for the F-35,” says Jorníček. And to the question of what the agreed purchase of the F-35 for the Czechia will mean for Olomouc-based Honeywell, he answers succinctly: “In short, to produce the required number of subassemblies for APU units.”
Here in Hlubočky, only the stator part will be produced for the APU for the F-35. “With military products, we only see what we are responsible for – safety is an absolute priority for us,” explains Jorníček when asked about strict security measures. “None of us can see exactly what the whole APU looks like.”
Parts for US military Chinook helicopters and Abrams tanks are also produced here. “Honeywell has now signed a large contract to restore all Chinook helicopters, which for us is a huge amount of work for the US military,” adds director Šebesta.
Humans and robots
In terms of quantity, APUs for large aircraft are produced here, followed by hundreds and thousands of power units and tens and hundreds for military applications. At the same time, the military section of the portfolio is the smallest, but most stable part of production, which was not affected even by the pandemic, which otherwise had a significant impact on aviation – during covid, the local factory had to lay off three hundred and fifty employees.
“Before covid, we had approximately eight hundred and fifty people, today there are seven hundred and we have open places for another hundred,” says Šebesta. “The market is recovering from covid and interest in new parts is increasing, which we didn’t have before covid. This catapulted us in terms of the number of orders to a situation where we already have the same orders as before the pandemic,” he states.
The situation in Ukraine did not affect Honeywell from Olomouc in any way – the factory only lost a few suppliers, which they replaced very quickly.
“We are now seeing the biggest increase within APU in the area of business jets,” says Šebesta about the changes in the world during the first waves of the pandemic. “For airplanes, the volume is growing in general, the situation is already normal there, but it is much sharper in business jets.”
And just as the volume of orders in aviation is gradually increasing, they are working in Hlubočky on stronger automation as part of the so-called “Industry 4.0”, which will increase their capacity. “It is one of the pillars on which we will move the factory forward,” explains Jorníček. “At the same time, we divide it into two main sections: automation through robots and IoT, or the Internet of Things.”
While IoT will be used to collect data and analyze where the factory could be more efficient, robotics will put that efficiency into practice. While the aviation industry is on the rise again, the number of people working in engineering production has stopped – a situation that plagues the entire Czech industry.
“That’s why we have our own training center today,” says Šebesta. “I said here some time ago that when a train comes here to the station behind the factory, we can select the necessary number of people and train them in exactly what we need.”
This is how carpenters and confectioners are today at Honeywell in Olomouc, who will learn exactly what they need at the training center. “Today, we can retrain any profession to become a mechanic in aircraft production,” he claims. Although robotization is the future, there will be a need for capable people, especially in mechanical engineering. And today in Hlubočky – in addition to being able to make aircraft engines – they can make their own.