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'Zwolle company delighted with big order for Joint Strike Fighter'


They are already doing business with global players such as Boeing, Airbus, KLM, Delta Airlines and Lufthansa. The Zwolle company NIJL Aircraft Docking, which specialises in making maintenance platforms for aircraft, can now also add the Ministry of Defence to this list.

This is because the company will be supplying four height-adjustable platforms for the maintenance and inspection of the F135 engines of the Joint Strike Fighter (F35). The Netherlands has bought 37 of these new fighters (the successor of the F16), but other European countries have also placed orders. Eventually, hundreds of JSFs will be flying around the whole of Europe. A European logistics centre has been established in Woensdrecht, where an important part of the maintenance of these engines will also be carried out. The systems of the Zwolle company will soon be used intensively by maintenance engineers.

Maintenance contract

He can't divulge the amounts involved, but CEO Norbert Pieterse is delighted with the order, which also includes a 20-year maintenance contract. Moreover, this first step in the defence market has given them a taste for more. "There will be a number of other locations in Europe where maintenance is also carried out on engines. European countries have ordered so many JSFs that not all the maintenance can be carried out in Woensdrecht. We have the possibility to deliver this same type of platform in other countries if everyone is happy with those in Woensdrecht."
A maintenance docking system for the Airbus A380 tail wing. © NIJL Aircraft Docking
You can change a lightbulb at home using a stepladder. But what if a huge Boeing or Airbus has to go into the hangar for maintenance? With all those different parts and protrusions at different heights that all need to be inspected? "Then you won't get very far with your stepladder", says NIJL sales manager Chris Emmink. The company makes complete systems that are wholly tailored to the aircraft type in question. "Everything is focused on safety, both for the people who have to do the work and for the plane." It is quite a difficult job, because for the safety of the mechanics it is important that they get as close as possible to where they need to work, but the system must not damage the aircraft itself, of course. That's why we often work with handrails that can be folded in and out.

Goods lift

The Zwolle company supplies systems up to no less than 27 metres high. For example, for maintenance of the Airbus 380's tail. With six storeys and a separate passenger lift to get the mechanics and their tools or parts safely in the right place. The platforms that the company will now supply to the Ministry of Defence are 'only' three metres high, but no less advanced. "The JSF engine is removed from the aircraft for maintenance with a crane and is then transported into the horseshoe-shaped platform in an upright position. The platform can then move up and down so that work can be carried out safely anywhere around the engine," Pieterse and Emmink explain. "In the United States, they have opted for a static platform and the engine moves up and down. We have proposed to do it this way on the basis of our experience. A JSF engine weighs 4000 kilos and it's quite a risk to move it up and down. Now you can stabilise the engine and have the platform move on its hydraulic legs. There will also be extra goods lifts so that things are ergonomically brought to the right location. The Ministry of Defence thinks that's very important, too."


The market served by NIJL Aircraft Docking only has a handful of major players worldwide. "It's a niche market," says CEO Pieterse. Nevertheless, it was not a foregone conclusion that the Zwolle company would receive the order from the Ministry of Defence. "The Netherlands has invested millions in the development of the JSFs, also with the hope that they would generate employment. But the maintenance has been put out to European tender," says John Habers from the HEaC project management agency in Zwolle, which assisted NIJL in this process. "We wrote the tender jointly and were invited for an interview a few months later to provide technical substantiation for the plan." Pieterse: "The fact that the government is keen for this to generate employment was not the only reason NIJL has been selected. It's mainly the combination with the technology that we use."

NIJL restarted two years ago after a bankruptcy. "Since then we have been working hard to regain our position in the market. We have won many projects worldwide and have experienced healthy growth," says Pieterse. The order from the Ministry of Defence is in line with the company's strategy to do more to spread risk. "We have been very focused on the commercial market, and this has its peaks and troughs. That is why it is good to look at other markets, such as the military sector. And even better that we have now achieved this."


(De Stentor, 9 April 2019)