Loic Alirand, Managing director of CTMI

"A designer and manufacturer of textiles for technical uses and composite materials, Loïc Alirand currently manages three companies: LAP, created in 2009, ET-Tech, acquired in 2011, and CTMI, acquired in October 2016. The GSL Group, which federates the three companies, can therefore claim complete control of the value chain, from design through to marketing of high value-added products, with particular expertise in the civil and military aeronautics markets.

Loïc Alirand's ambition is to pursue the group's development in France and abroad, thanks to his past experiences in world-famous companies. If he remains generally rather discreet about his industrial activity, this textile engineer and passionate about his job has nevertheless agreed to present what makes the strength of his companies: innovation, human skills, a positioning on markets with high technicality.

You joined CTMI in 2016, alongside ET TECH and LAP, with the aim of further mastering the value chain. Is it possible to draw up an initial assessment of the synergies already implemented to date?

The acquisition of CTMI represents a real professional and personal accomplishment, because if I had already been able to pass the milestone of creating a company by founding LAP, and take a first step towards production with the takeover of ET-TECH, CTMI has enabled me to acquire and control a real high-performance industrial tool.

CTMI is positioned on the manufacture of advanced composite materials, based on carbon, glass and quartz fibers, which are then woven or knitted, impregnated with thermosetting resins. We offer up to the manufacture of dry preforms. The latter is a particularly promising segment for our business. The whole represents a rather unique panel of competences in Europe, with a great verticality of the warp from the preparation to the weaving, up to the preform. We even formulate our own resins, which enables us to claim a significant differentiating position on the European market for composite materials. Today we carry out 25% of our activity with the defence sector, 60% with civil aeronautics, and the rest with the industry at large.

ET-TECH's activity is dedicated to "commodities", lower performance composites integrating glass fiber-based fabrics, for our customers who make either infusion or wet lay-up laminates. Finally, LAP supplies all insulation markets (chemical, electrical, thermal): we offer so-called technical textiles, which remain flexible but go through a functionalization phase thanks to various treatments, whether silicone coating or lamination for example.

The three companies are thus complementary due to their different positioning.

You operate in a field that is a major source of innovation. You had announced that innovation was a strategic axis of development for the companies of the GSL Group. How would you define it today and how does it translate into your daily business?

The "I" in CTMI stands for Innovation, which means that it is rooted in the company's genes. Very concretely, a young R&D engineer has just been hired to implement the innovation strategy.

Next, I would define innovation in our company as pragmatic; in fact, even though we have patents on 3D weaves, it is not fundamental research and development in the academic sense, but rather an ability to provide solutions to our customers' problems. It is a permanent balance that must be maintained between innovation and production. Our customers are full of ideas and we are known for our ability to develop "five-legged sheep".

Our projects are generally ambitious, with a fairly slow pace of maturity because they are largely intended for the aerospace industry. Very often these are exclusive projects, which ultimately give a competitive advantage to the OEM and OEM who call on us.

As far as collaborative projects are concerned, they are only one-off projects, because we don't necessarily have the critical mass for that, or at least that's not what structures innovation at CTMI.

If the leading companies in the composite materials sector generally supply raw materials such as carbon fiber, transformers, weavers, knitters and impregnators like you are still mostly a small and medium sized in France. In your opinion, what are the strengths and weaknesses of this positioning in the supply chain today, particularly with major accounts such as Airbus?

While there is indeed a concentration of players in the sector at a global level, a small and medium sized provide solutions that large companies are no longer able to provide, as they are very often limited in their actions by strategic axes defined on a global scale. An small and medium sized keeps all its independence, its legitimacy, and its freedom to manufacture the famous "five-legged sheep" requested today by customers who can be very prestigious.

This is what allows us, for example, to be the exclusive and qualified supplier to Airbus for engine air inlet preforms for the Airbus A330, A350 and A380; a complete workshop is dedicated to this activity within our plant, because the fabric is woven at our plant and we go right up to the delivery of the operational preform.

This is a perfect example of a small company that has managed to find a solution to a problem that was virtually insoluble until now. We have also been a qualified supplier for many years for various products in the defence and space sector. It is up to us to maintain the balance between the need to keep our reactivity in developments while growing the company at a reasonable pace.

Finally if LAP already realizes 80% of its activity in export, ET-TECH 50%, CTMI realizes only 10% internationally. This is therefore a great playground to consider for our future development.

Although the world market for composites has been growing for several years, thanks to the automotive and aeronautics sectors in particular, the relative weight of these materials is still modest compared to others. In your opinion, what challenges remain for this industry?

For the aeronautics market, composite materials are now everywhere or almost everywhere: this market has reached great technological maturity. It is likely that the next generation of aircraft that will be flying in 20 years' time will contain a little less composite materials, since today the desire to use composite materials in aircraft was strong, even if it may be exaggerated (especially from an economic point of view). However, forecasts for the number of aircraft to be produced indicate strong demand in the coming years, so growth should remain sustained. We will have to be vigilant about the problem of end-of-life recycling of composite materials, but this problem is already widely understood by the industry, even if many answers remain to be imagined.

The automotive market has entered a very strong penetration phase for structural composite materials. Growth will be strong in the years to come and we should soon see mass-produced cars integrated with large-sized structural composite materials.

The composite materials sector continues its very promising path with new challenges to be met: to follow the strong demand from customers, to integrate eco-design. For CTMI, this represents an enormous number of opportunities, and we won't be able to follow them all. It's up to us to choose the right course, where CTMI will be the most relevant.

Your DNA rests on three pillars: human, technical and performance.  Finally, through this triptych, didn't you launch the foundations of your own "industry of the future"?

Within my company, I consider that it is indeed my employees who control the technology; I just set this "to music" and set the course to continue creating performance.

The industry's challenge today is training for the jobs of tomorrow. At CTMI, we have an ambitious training plan every year that strengthens the skills of our employees, contributes to the creation of value for the company, but is also concerned about the well-being of the staff through training that is less related to our immediate needs. People are at the heart of the project of GSL, CTMI and the other companies of the group. All our employees have long-term contracts.

Behind the theme of the industry of the future are also integrated the notions of products and processes that are more respectful of the environment and more sustainable. Is this an area you are working on?

Our products provide significant savings in energy consumption during their use: this is what has contributed to their success. Having said that, it is clear that products arriving at the end of their life cycle pose recycling problems in particular; the entire industry is looking at this problem: at CTMI , we have set up a process for reusing our carbon fiber waste (scrap).

How do you feel about the future development of the French textile industry in the coming years?

As a textile engineer, I became passionate about this sector, full of creativity and technicality, associated with a certain empiricism linked to the great disparity of the materials used (natural fibers, chemical, mineral...). It is a world without limits, with an almost infinite potential and therefore fascinating. There is therefore every reason to remain optimistic for the years to come, especially in France which is positioning itself more and more in technical textiles and advanced materials.

We have talked about the environment, and I would like to say a word about human ecology: humans must remain at the heart of our social project. I am saddened to see that some fibers sometimes go around the world several times between their harvesting, weaving, finishing, manufacturing and distribution, all of which is almost systematically carried out in the cheapest areas, in the poorest countries, to generate maximum profit for the major clothing brands. It is up to the citizen-consumer to get informed, to think about the impasse where this insatiable quest for ever cheaper products is leading us and to understand that behind many articles made in Asia, there are men and women paid less than 1US$ / day without any protection.

What technology or product has surprised or challenged you in recent months?

Franky Zapata's Flyboard Air is for me an exceptional product that is breathtaking.

It is a means of transportation that is really in a logic of total break with what is done today as a mode of transport whatever it is; it could seriously in the long term redistribute all the paradigms established since the "all car" in place for 80 years.

It integrates carbon fiber which brings the lightness and rigidity necessary for this overboard.  It is however a pity that the development of this product is being held back in France by the authorities; our country would undoubtedly have everything to gain by letting this initiative take off and by allowing the creativity of its inventors to express itself more fully".

Interview by N. Righi - October 2018

Photo: CTMI - La Saône plant (38)

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