The new focus in aircraft development, the production

By Bjorn Fehrm

October 17, 2019, ©. Leeham News: Over the last decades the focus for new airliner projects has been technological advancements in aerodynamics, structures, engines, and avionics. This has offered 15% efficiency gains for the new airliners over the aircraft they replace. While still important, the next airliner projects have an additional focus which has moved to the top of the list. The production phase and how to improve its many parts.

The parts include development for automation, efficient partnering/sourcing and how to reduce the expensive learning phase of the production. We will cover this change in a series of articles around the 9th Aviation Forum, an up-and-coming Munich conference that focuses on these themes.

The advancement of our air transport system

The gains in the classical technical areas for new airliner projects have flattened. Transonic aerodynamics and the advanced structures in Carbon Fiber Reinforced Polymers (CFRP) which makes these aerodynamics possible where perfected in the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350 projects.

The use of Fly-By-Wire to make aircraft lighter by load alleviation and overstress protection is known technology, as is reduced static stability to reduce trim drag.

The Engines have gone from medium bypass ratio Turbofans of around 5 to bypass ratios of 10 or beyond in the last decade. This has given us 15% leaps in fuel efficiency when combined with hotter cores. But we can’t double the BPR one more time for the next generation and hotter core improvements are gradual in their development. The result is a flattening of the engine efficiency curve.

Hybrid-Electrics is hyped as bringing us the next major leap in efficiency, but those who understand the involved technologies don’t understand how. When you dive into the subject it’s like when we entered the jet age. It will take decades before we have solutions that bring any real gains.

The next advancement lies in the industrialization

With industrialization, we include more than production. It’s about making the whole lifecycle of the airliner more efficient, from time and cost reduction in development to how to set up the sourcing and production of the 4,000,000 parts which make an airliner. And it’s about keeping the aircraft flying during its lifecycle to finally recycle it when the time comes. For all these phases we need a new level of efficiency.

The development cost of a new airliner is pretty well known. We assume anything from $5bn to $15bn dependent on the size of the aircraft and the complexity of the project.

That the next phase, the initial production run, cost as much in extra costs due to run in problems is less well known. But it’s today’s reality. For the last 30 years, airliner projects have doubled their development costs before they reach production costs which are breaking even with the sales price of the aircraft.

So, we should not talk about the $5bn to $15bn to put a new airliner into the market. It’s $10bn to $30bn which is drained from the companies which decide on a new airliner project before cost/revenue break-even and money starts flowing back. This extra cost must be reduced with the design of a production system that has a faster learning curve.

The Munich Aviation Forum dwells on the trickier parts in this change; partnering with suppliers to get the 4m parts Just-In-Time and at the right costs. The design of a production system which can achieve a shortened time to break even and once there, produce at cost levels which are significantly lower than before.

The legacy 15% improvement in aircraft performance is supplanted by a new target, which goes beyond the 15% efficiency gain for the aircraft, the gain in efficiency for the industrialization phase of the aircraft. And here the targets are well beyond 15%.

38 Comments on “The new focus in aircraft development, the production

  1. In the mid-90’s Boeing went to the quality-productivity business model with strong employee engagement and continuous improvement. Products from that era have had significant market success.

    In 1997 just before the merger, Ron Woodard, who was President of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, said “Our products are approaching theoretical perfection.” This came as a big surprise to workers. His point was that performance was maximized. We should focus on cost and schedule.

    Around that time, Boeing ditched quality-productivity culture and adapted the Wal-Mart cost-cutting model to high-end manufacturing. The measure of that business model is 2 fleet groundings, losses over $60 billion, program delays measured in years, dozens of angry airline customers, 30-50,000 flight cancellations, 2 crashes, and loss of confidence from customers and public.

    One message from the quality period is that workers won’t engage unless they think executives truly serious about the new culture.

    Boeing executives are at an historic low in terms of credibility and leadership. Good luck with this new production plan.

    • There’s no need to invest in quality when you can drive other aircraft makers out of business by getting the US government to impose 300% tarrifs on better aircraft just because Boeing claims that they have a competing aircraft (oops that one keeps crashing)….I bet the Airlines now wish they had bought more airplanes from Bombardier to keep a viable 3rd competitor in place. Boeing doesn’t have to worry about quality, they just dial Washington when they can’t compete with their inferior product….Look at the mess this has caused!

  2. Good topic but not new.

    Consider for example:
    – Boeing’s consolidation of 767 production to fee up floor space, achieved with dialogue and thinking
    – ditto Renton with 737
    – jigs and other automation in the Puget Sound area, sold to Boeing and perhaps Airbus
    – Boeing’s jigless assembly of parts like flaps for the 767, 40 years ago you say, achieved by precision in fabrication of parts so that pilot holes were accurately located (a far cry from 707s – Boeing had to produce floor track beams without pilot holes for repair of airplanes)

    Much of the problem is behavior of management who don’t listen to workers (reversal of which is what Honeywell’s TQM actually did for quality and efficiency) and unions (who protect slackers, incompetents, and dangerous members).

    • In the quality era at Boeing, unions were included as legitimate stakeholders who helped reduce risk for workers who wanted to suggest ideas.

      In my 40 years with SPEEA, I never saw a single example of protecting slackers incompetents or dangerous members. More often, it was management who would transfer someone rather than bother with the company’s relatively progressive policies for discipline and performance management.

      • It was the so called slackers that figure out how to assemble the 787.

        Don’t get me wrong, been in 3 unions and they all had issues.

        But I also saw a manager brow beat a guy into driving a horribly unsafe truck (he was married, two kids and could not afford to get fired)

        I refused and dared him to fire me (he didn’t)

        In the end he took on a long time union guy, who walked the truck, came up with 10 safety issues (broken seat belt, broken air seat, no knob on the shifter) and then called in the steward.

        We could get help with a conflict.

        End of issue.

  3. Hope there will be a presenter/panel comparing the way Airbus is approaching this versus Boeing — in other words, Airbus appears to be investing in the area of automation and productivity improvement and Boeing is concentrating on cost cutting and squeezing with as limited investment in anything new (not just planes) as possible.

    • Part of that might have to do with the location of a company.
      A Franco-German company is less flexible in hiring and firing people than an American company.

      Boeing’s strategy seems to be cut cost first, if it doesn’t work it can always (temporarily) throw in some extra labour to fix it.

      For Airbus it’s relatively harder and more expensive to cut costs on labour. So they better get it right straight away.

      • I think it is thanks to the automation of the high end German car industry there are plenty experience to use when designing and testing out automatic/robotic systems. Even with that it can go wrong the first time around as Airbus experienced with the new A321neo line in HAM before they got it right. Still making/modifying the design of the Aircraft to suit new production tools helps alot. During war time it moves quickly and it is not just new factories and more staff, during the WWII Aircraft production times dropped alot for Aircrafts in the same family like Spitfire, Me190, P-51, P-47, B-17 and B-24’s.

        • Frank Vann’s biography of Willy Messerschmitt mentions that Messerschmitt had developed a robotic riveting machine that at the Oberammergau factory roamed across the surface of an aircraft and put countersunk rivets in the correct spot. Labour was very short. Ju 88 man hours went down from 450,000 hours/unit to around 100,000/unit within a year and continued to fall as they went from cost plus incentive to fixed costs. Ju 488 was developed around presses that made 4 complete tapered spars for the aircraft in one operation. Arado made wings completely caste from magnesium for the Ar 234 to get required smoothness and fuel though in the end they ran the wing lofting through a computer and riveted at pointz of equal curve instead of equal chord to get the required smoothness. The compound curves of the Spitfires elliptical wings were initially rolled by skilled craftsmen and then stretch formed meaning that the complex wing of the Spitfire had no man hours disadvantage. Likewise for the compound curves of the B26 which were stretch formed. Obviously these ideas have been around a long time, the achievement will be in shortening the development cycle of manufacturing improvements.

    • Here are two images of the new a320 line in Hamburg. Apparently all is not yet working smoothly, but it does show how airbus plans to move forward.

      The first shows the automated and computer controlled “dollies” on which aircraft sit. The line is no longer a fixed thing, rather entire aircraft may be moved off the line if there are issues:,1&qlt=85,0

      The second shows the new automated riveting machines on the new structure assembly line. This is the line that creates the pre-stuffed fuselage sections to be shipped worldwide:,1&qlt=85,0

  4. The Forum’s agenda is pretty revealing: IT Security will be ‘discussed’ in a World Cafe session, rather than in a workshop, and one of the two experts expected has yet to be announced. The (or any) industry’s attitude towards IT security could not have been expressed more accurately. That’s quite scary, given that IoT, the Cloud, AI, and other shiny buzzwords are regularly presented as key solutions for production advances.

    • Industry 4.0 is a coherent program that unites all of the things we’ve been hearing as buzz words IoT, IoP, automatiion with artificial intelligence, predictive maintainance, supply chain management, augmented reality (for assembly manuals, training, maintaining procedures) . I’ve been comming across the buzz for a while now and companies that make sensors all the way to MRP firms such as SAP and IBM are involved. When you see the technology at a trade show you’ll start appreciating it. Being able to summon maintenance pirocedure in augmented reality will work. (You can use glasses or an iPad like devices). Someone assembling or maintaining a device will learn much faster. Seems to have started with the German Government but Australian government has gotten on board,.

  5. @Bjorn, regarding the flattening off of improvements in engine efficiency, are you making an account of improvements achieved in RR’s Ultrafan, Advance, and GTF programmes, and whatever it is that GE are up to? Or, is the point that a 5% reduction in today’s fuel burn represents far fewer gallons of fuel saved than 5% did in yesteryear?

    RR certainly still seem to be making big claims for their projects.

    • Hi Matthew,

      I mean of SFC improvement will slow down. It’s physics, the low hanging fruit was the BPR (or really the lower specific thrust which BPR is a proxy for) which improved propulsive efficiency when it went from 5 to 11 for LEAP and 12 for the GTF. But we now need 22 or 24 to get the same leap in BPR/Specific thrust for the next generation and we won’t have this, it’s just physically impossible with a Turbofan, geared or not. Ultrafan is 15 which is only a 25% improvement over the in-service GTF. Advance is about core improvement where we take about perhaps 0.3-0.4% SFC improvement per year. We go from where we easily had 1%-1.3% SFC improvement per year to something like 0.5%-0.7% per year, which is almost half the rate we used to have.

      • And unless we make an structure leap in form, that is very small as well

      • Thanks Bjorn. Sounds like there’s a need for some unobtanium.

        So everyone is getting close to the limits of what can be achieved with today’s materials and fuels. RR have got these projects running, but it’s difficult to see what might come after those are finished.

      • I think this is similar to the case of the law of diminishing returns or principle of diminishing marginal productivity, an economic law stating that if one input in the production of a commodity is increased while all other inputs are held fixed, a point will eventually be reached at which additions of the input yield progressively smaller, or diminishing, increases in output. This rule holds in any process of production unless the technique of production also changes. The latter sentence does hold out some hope.

        The efficiency of open cycle gas turbines is exceeding 50% (nearly 57% for stationary) and that of combined cycle nearly 68%. Apart from higher temperature materials there are two other technologies not yet used a/ intercooling of the air after the LP compressor perhaps using the cowling as a heat exchanger and b/ introduction of heat exchanger technology to transfer heat from the exhaust to the air prior to combustion ‘heat regeneration’. This was done experimentally with MTU’s CRISP “counter rotating integrated shrouded propfan” which uses both intercooling and heat regeneration as well as a 25:1 contra rotating fan.

        There is also the possibility of the use of EDF “Electric Ducted Fans” where a central power plant generates electrical power very efficiently and which is turned into propulsive force by EDF “Electric Ducted Fans” which now have impressive efficiency and power to weight ratios: The DS-215-DIA HST EDF from can produce 25kg thrust yet weighs only 3.4kg. Airbus etc are looking at this. At this point they think superconducting motors and conductors are needed to keep weight down. (Makes sense of cryogenic hydrogen is used as a fuel)

        Then there is the possibility of a radical shift. Elon Musk claimed he ‘invented’ a supersonic eVTOL aircraft (battery powered) capable of transcontinental though not intercontinental flight. He didn’t provide much detail but I did a thought experiment and this seems feasible:
        1 Use eVTOL Electric Ducted Fans for Vertical Take-off
        2 Use mmall light wings that are low drag low weight but only suitable for high speed flight hence the use of VTOL for take off and landing.
        3 Once high altitude is achieved in the thinner atmosphere (say 30,000m or more) the aircraft transitions to supersonic so as to minimise its time burned fuel from induced. Since the aircraft is battery powered no air is needed.
        4 A survey of the literature shows that turbofans (and hence EDF) can operate efficiently from Mach 2.8-3.5 perhaps more if the fan itself is supersonic and the air is not slowed to subsonic.
        5 Current batteries provide an energy density of 250WHr/Kg though it seems 800WHr/Kg is achievable with current chemistries.

        • Wasnt the MTU Crisp concept based on 80s technology propfans, where as the shift now has moved to GTF 2nd generation counter rotating shrouded front fans with recuperators.
          Intercoolers and recuperators add weight and cost and thats the sticky issue. It may be easier just to use large modern turbo-props like the TP400 instead of chasing the ‘jet like’ solution.

      • In theory you still can improve the jet Engine by going to UDF’s and move to contious volume combustion (doughnuts-on-a-string Aurora engine) at much higher pressures instead of todays continous pressure combustion.
        That requires years of continous and high military funding and an urgent need by the gouverment before commerical spin-off’s can be certified.

  6. A “faster learning curve”? Learning? Listing to someone to understand something? First step for Boeing would be to listen better to their own engineers rather than their bean counters. MAX certification was fast but we know the result today

    • In this case the ‘faster learning curve’ was about that period between a successful test campaign & and the period in which efficient production is ramped up. At the moment Airbus are just getting through a range of miseries in fitting out the new FLEX cabins. Who’d have thought interiors could be as big a hold up as engines.

      The MAX problem isn’t a production learning curve problem. Its a design and certification problem. I’m just wondering if the problem was not just bean counters but listening to their customers. After all they wanted the MAX with the same type certificate as the NG.

  7. Where do the “head hunter assassins” revealed in the Seattle Times article fit in this new industrialization scheme/paradise?
    More seriously, the changes in MO and company culture which is required is simply phenomenal. The very thinking that union and management are somehow adversaries when it comes to this is anathema, yet there it is prominently exposed in this forum.
    Maybe there is a-reason AB set up their automated line in Hamburg where union and management relations are typically German and”korekt”.

  8. Where is a session in Munich on predictive maintenence based upon sensor input and a analysis of same sensor datum across all platforms.
    A simple example on a coffee roasting line the plant manager giving me the tour heard a different sound of a motor moving an integral conveyor, immediately told a tech to run to distributor to get a new motor since in the managers experience the existing motor would fail within the hour shutting down the line would cost the roaster $10,000 a hour a sensor on the motor continuously providing data would have predicted failure in excess of one hour

    • In commercial shipping following the deterioration of piston rings is long established.
      Same for jet engines in general. They are all predictive maintenance afaics.

      • The problem is that high cost items are worth prediction. Lower cost ones no. It cost big bucks to do analysis and then you have to pay someone to manage it, look at it.

        I did a lot of that sort of “predictive” assessment for motors. In the end, all they said was maybe.

        Sometimes the human senses are still the best.

        I told them that they had a reducer failing, change it now.

        Nope, we want to do it on our timeline. It failed during a sort and the scramble was on. At least they had the pre prep done and they got it going fairly quickly.

    • The difference between the coffee roaster’s approach and the Japanese approach is that the Japanese would shut down the line and modify it to ensure that it wouldn’t break ever again.

  9. Climate change-its happening and in general the World is doing something about it -whether fast enough is another matter.But.
    Power generation is increasingly moving to zero emissions wind, solar and nuclear.Automotive is embracing electric as is rail.Shipping is already super efficient per ton and more is being done ( cleaner fuels/scrubbing/slower speeds).
    So it’s not difficult to see where ‘the fickle finger of fate’ will increasingly be pointing.
    It is true that the law of diminishing returns is hitting conventional fan engines and aircraft flying at 1960 speeds.
    So it has to change,it can change and imho will change particularly for short/medium ranges.
    Reduce speed to lower drag.This in turn allows for fully laminar wings,which in turn allows for UDF super high bypass engines.
    The overall increase in efficiency could be a step change and all the technology is available/commercial/within our short term grasp.
    If I were Boeing I would be in no rush to launch the 797,opinions and consumer perceptions are changing fast.

    • Consumers constantly moan about small seats, but book them anyway when faced with a higher price. Earth warriors are the same, l have yet to meet one who is not well travelled. They only fly when it’s “really important”,unlike the rest of us.

    • @Phil

      So, is Boeing just going to launch an all new NSA — amid the MAX meltdown — with EIS at point in time where the industry might be facing radical transformation and the prospect of diminishing markets for kerosene powered aircraft.

      In fact, the catastrophic MAX situation could lead to a double whammy for the Boeing company, over the next decade: Implosion of the MAX programme today and a NSA programme launched in panic as a response to the MAX situation — i.e. programme imploding a decade due to societal changes not foreseen when the launch decision was made.

    • Yes, speed for flights up to 2hrs is not that critical as you spend more time from leaving your car getting thru the Airport system and into your assigned aircraft seat than the flight time at many airports. Having Aircraft with huge span wings with active flutter control, UDF Engines and laminar flow with a bit slower flight speeds for these flights might come one day.

      • I think up to 2 hours ( flight) will be dominated by high speed trains in many countries where topographically possible -certainly Europe.But china,Japan,even India are investing heavily.
        Actually the US are too when one considers the new Virgin Florida train and the LA-SF development ( not sure about the NE).

    • “Climate Change its happening”. I see no evidence of significant anthropogenic effects on climate. I assert there is no climate emergency. The worlds surface is greener than 100 years ago and greening further, the Amazon is 86% untouched since European settlement and the touched portions are greening, reefs are OK, oceans not acidic. I do see climate alarmism using exaggeration and contextual misrepresentation turning into opportunists for promotion of business and ideologies. I see the negative effects on the mental health of children driven into eco anxiety(truly wicked and deliberate), I see “masters of the universe” banks that want global “cap and trade” and the global carbon tax types who want Socialism, wealth distribution and global government. Emissions reduction is furthest from their minds. I see censorship and a very nasty belittling of rational skeptics, if you’re against the agenda you have no freedom of speech. It’s effecting aviation business environment but a measure of the insanity is that an industry that is emitting 2% of global emissions and at most 12% of transport emissions is targeted. A billion dollars spent mitigating in areas such as surface transport will have vastly more effect but efficient use of money is not on the agenda, political use is. There are nearly 100 different climate models and none work when run backwards for more than a few months. The challenge for aviation will be to avoid being drawn into the extremes of this vortex. While climate modelling has been ineffective solar modelling has made great strides. The next 35 years will be interesting as we are entering a reduction in solar output and will likely see climate change as global cooling. I’m trying to be rational and prudent.

      • Whatever your beliefs.what matters is the clients of Boeing and Airbus.If they want ‘greener’ aircraft then that’s the type of aircraft they will or should produce.There are many examples but EasyJet is a good example.
        They are the ones that face the consumer and they ( and their customers) are the ones that will have to pay any gov’t carbon taxes.

        • Yeah right…. The big car companies are dropping their light fuel efficient cars in US and building more truck like bigger vehicles. What people say they want and what they will b.u.y. can be different things.
          Boeing made the 247 and then the airlines said to Douglas we want something like that but wider. Once you make something that’s a success , only then will you find others say , ‘Yes , we wanted that all along’.

  10. Consumers constantly moan about small seats, but book them anyway when faced with a higher price. Earth warriors are the same, l have yet to meet one who is not well travelled. They only fly when it’s “really important”,unlike the rest of us.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *