Anyone interested in the defence industry will be familiar with names such as Airbus, Boeing, BAE Systems, Dassault and so on. But these big prime contractors rely on a myriad of small and medium enterprises (SMEs), many of which are amazingly skilled and agile and frequently hold know-how that is unique to them. We are going to turn the spotlight on some of these SMEs at regular intervals. What follows is the first part of our first portrait.
At the end of a country road in the centre of France, just when you think you’re going to end up in the fields, you may glimpse a few one-storey buildings through some trees. Surprisingly, behind these unremarkable walls lies a small and medium enterprise, ASB, which employs just 200 people and believes it is a world leader in a very niche market: thermal batteries.
They are used in a wide variety of applications from powering ejection seats to supplying the power for embedded electronic systems in the Ariane V rocket during launch, or in missiles, torpedoes, submarine engines, land, naval and air defence systems, amongst many other uses.
These non-rechargeable, primary lithium batteries can be used only once and are a bespoke product. They provide a lot of power in a very short time but until needed they remain totally inert. This means they do not lose any power, even when stocked for a long time. “We have a commitment to our clients that our batteries will remain reliable even after they have been stocked for 15 years,” Jean-Denis Caridroit, group sales and programmes executive of ASB told FOB during a recent site visit.
ASB is 50% owned by Airbus and 50% by Saft. It was created in 1994 and although is partly represented by missile manufacturer MBDA it is not linked directly to the group, thereby allowing it to sell to MBDA’s competitors.
Small as it is, ASB has three sites in Europe and one in the United States. It even has two subsidiaries: one based in Scotland, MSB (Missiles and Space batteries) founded in 1996, and now employing 80 people; and another in the United States, ATB Inc. (Advanced Thermal Batteries), created in 2006 in Westminster near Baltimore. “The U.S. market represents 60% of the global market and we had access to 15% of that,” explained Caridroit. They hope that ATB will nibble off a bit more of that market share. The subsidiary has been “a real success” Caridroit remarked. “We are the only non-American company to be qualified as “star level” with Lockheed Martin and we are a Preferred Supplier to Boeing,” he is proud to say.
Since its creation 22 years ago, ASB has produced more than three million batteries and develops between 15 to 20 new products every year. “But we no longer publish patents,” Caridroit explained “because when we did we were copied.”
Part 2 will be published on Monday