Bjorn’s Corner: New aircraft technologies. Part 39. Production

By Bjorn Fehrm

November 23, 2023, ©. Leeham News: We are discussing the different phases of an airliner development program. After covering Conceptual, Preliminary, and Detailed design, the manufacturing of prototypes, and their roles in flight tests, we now look at production.

The focus and work around the production of an airliner has increased over the last decade. Why this renewed focus?

Figure 1. The development plan for a new airliner. Source: Leeham Co.

The increased focus on the production phase of an airliner

When the first jet airliners, the De Havilland Comet and Boeing 707, were developed and produced, they had an active production period of 15 years for the Comet and 20 years for the Boeing 707.

The Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 have a production that will span 50 to 60 years.  We can expect the new generation, replacing these, to be in production for at least as long. The development period, which spans seven to 10 years, costs the OEM money, whereas the production/delivery period earns money.

It’s quite clear why OEMs pay more and more attention to how the millions of parts of a new airliner are produced. It’s the difference between production cost and the net sales price in the market that will pay back the money spent on development, production preparation, and entry into service preparations.

The recent airliner programs have only generated a net contribution (net sales price minus production cost, not costing money to produce and sell) after about eight to 10 years of production. The time until the development, production preparation, and support investments are covered is easily doubled the time to a net contribution. To keep this difficult fack, stressing the liquidity of the OEMs, in check, the production costs must be lowered as fast as possible after production starts.

When production preparation work starts

The production preparations for a new airliner project, therefore, start long before the conceptual design starts. Airbus and Boeing have conducted production preparations for the next airliner generation since their A350 and 787 programs wound down their production setup efforts.

What was learned from these advanced composite technology programs, which have been produced in low volumes (five to 15 per month, compared with 50 to 75 for a 737/A320 replacement), is that the design and production techniques were not efficient enough for the next generation high volume aircraft. In fact, they were not efficient enough for these programs as well.

Tier One subsuppliers of composite structures Spirit AeroSystems and Leonardo have declared they need to renegotiate the price of their supplies to these programs. What was hoped for in cost down for the large composite structures supplied for 10 years has not occurred.

The optimistic plans for the cost of thermoset carbon fiber structures were wrong. Those who followed the industry around 2003 to 2006 remember how Boeing said it would put together a Dreamliner in Final Assembly in three days. Today, 15 years after production started, it takes about 10 times that time.

We will analyze why such projections were not fulfilled and what the OEMs, with their supply partners, are working on to bring down the costs to a level where a next-generation high-volume airliner can use the benefits of modern construction techniques.

What changes are needed?

What needs to be changed in the design for production of the aircraft, and how shall production preparation and the start of production be set up to achieve the fast cost reduction to mature costs that are needed to pay the billions of investment dollars of a new aircraft program?

Shall a new airliner project sacrifice ultimate performance from very advanced materials to fix the production cost problem? What production technology advances are necessary before a new generation program can generate the margins today’s aluminum aircraft generates?

These are now 10,000 units into their learning curves. Is it possible to reach such cost-down levels in a new program without having to wait until the 10,000th unit is produced?

The production aspect of a replacement for today’s volume airliners has large and critical problems to solve, as large as the technical solutions to efficiency and low emissions, if not larger.

17 Comments on “Bjorn’s Corner: New aircraft technologies. Part 39. Production

  1. The learning curve is a very interesting discussion. The application of a T1 or T2 curve to a manufacturing process and expecting the benefits the graphs call for has a few warts. First, a learning curve is applicable to an assembly line where a minimally configured product such as a car, or better yet, a Toaster is built at a very high rate. The T1 curve is usually expected to hit 1000 units in a matter of days to weeks. This is why it works. The workforce is there long enough to actually learn the process, get proficient at the process and drive the touch labor component down as the assembly group learns. Applying this to an Aircraft assembly process has the unrecognized problems with the workforce being stable to actually learn. Getting to unit 1000 on an aircraft line can take a decade or more, instead of weeks to months for cars, and days for Toasters. The IE types misapply the curves because nobody calls them out for it. Aircraft lines are such a small percentage of the manufacturing universe and they have idiosyncrasy’s that you cannot understand until you are immersed in the process. MBA types not fluent in the process can make projections based on book learning and be oh so wrong, even though they have volumes of repeatable data from simpler assembly systems. Low volume highly configured vehicles and standard learning curves should never be in the same discussion because they are a bad fit. The gains made today in cost reduction on the line are on the backs of dedicated workers that believe they matter. These guys/gals are in very short supply since management thinks that offshoring and second and third tiering of the work package and managing by FTE Headcount gets them the product they need. I believe that management has lost the ability to make meaningful production cost improvements because the worker of today is markedly different than the worker of even 10 years ago. Aerospace used to be a solid career field where structures assemblers had a path towards a good paying job with a good retirement. That’s long gone in the current era of disposable workers. I fear for the future of Aerospace structures assembly, because the current products are very difficult to assemble without skilled ARTISTIC people doing the work, and the current workforce doesn’t want to develop those skills. There’s an interesting question today, Why doesn’t Airbus have as many highly publicized structural quality problems as Boeing. I might suggest that the answer is IG Metall, and that national unions continuing education requirements for continued Union Membership…… Thanks

    • Scott C:

      Great aspect, people talk about making computers and using that as a metric for aircraft when the production cycle is not remotely related.

      My brother used to fix TV and VCR, then South Korea jumped in and someone would buy the exact model VCR 3 months latter and the electronics had been changed. They could not begin to keep up. Turned both of those into throw away items.

      Aircraft are a world of their own. Not rockets but far closer to rockets than computers (or smart phones or …..)

      Funny story for my brother of a lady came in and wanted an estimate on a VCR. Nope, its not worth it, its under warranty, send it back (had to ship to somewhere on the West Coast).

      But that cost money! And it will cost me time to assess it just to tell you I can repair it and our free estimate gets us no work. Sorry mam, we just don’t touch those.

      You have two choices, ship it back and wait or buy another one!

    • David.
      Many people will dismiss this aircraft as an inefficient non competitive vehicle. I look at it as a stunning achievement. The airplane itself is fairly pedestrian, but the creation of the entire production system from basically scratch is quite worthy of note. China skipped a few generations of airliners and jumped into the deep end of the pool. The ARJ21 made it where Mitsubishi, a very competent company, bailed out of the Spacejet program, and the Sukhoi Superjet program has serious issues and may never be able achieve western acceptance and sales.

      • Scott C:

        I think its more complex than that. China’s government owns and controls the operation. A lot like the China Rocket industry that piggy backed off the ICBM program.

        Put enough money and focus (resources) into a single area and you can get something that flies in this case. Clearly China builds military aircraft and they have the old MD line to have duplicated process from as well as Airbus A320 series production line.

        So the metric is what is the next step (919 in this case). And they come out with a last generation aircraft. Any new Single Aisle at the very least should have composite wings (MC-21. )

        Note the very slow build rate into the foreseeable future.

        As China also regulates its airlines and competition, it can created an internal level playing field and make airlines buy The ARJ and the 919.

        They are not creating a competitive industry and clearly design wise its risk adverse.

        The 929 was an attempt at a current tech wing wise competitive but China wanted the tech and not actually partner with Russia and that of course has fallen by the wayside.

        The whole effort is really a boutique project to say we have an aircraft and aviation industry but without competition its a flat line. They never will be internationally sales capable.

        • Don’t underestimate Chinese determination and industrialization power. They beat the West there in many high tech industries.

          Not as good as, but better than us, is something we must get used too. We don’t like it.

          • Dont think its a matter of ‘dont like it’ , its the stealing of the technology , industrial processes (even horticultural plant hybrids ) that most ‘dont like’
            Considering western manufacturers are at the beginning of the carbon fibre large structures aircraft revolution, its a surprise to see them recycling old tech with aluminium. So no sign they are even at the beginning stage. Their newest large military transport is just a modified IL-76 yet Airbus and Boeing used the C-17 and A400M too pioneer large carbon sections

          • There is no question that Chinese companies can compete, it when the Government owns the mfg companies as well as the companies they supply that things bet wonky.

            Chinese government is the one who makes Airbus or Boeing orders and dishes out the aircraft. They are doing the same with the Chinese made aircraft.

            I agree with Duke on the stealing aspect.

            Chinese aircraft are not going to be advanced type or even ground breaking unless the mfg is divested like Airbus was. The forming countries for Airbus supplied money and they made sure the beanies were spread evenly, then they let Airbus decide what where and how.

          • The Chinese government fully support Comac, no question about it. But its really no diffetence to Boeing. In the fifties US government ordered 800 B52s, 700 KC135 and 1800 B47s with Boeing. After that, building hundreds of 707s and domibating industry was a shoe in.

            I think the concept of everything a global competitor builds is either inferior or stolen is from the cold war. It’s comforting and predictable.

    • They learned/copied from MD-80 production, but are still a few generations behind. The C919 is to a large extent a copy of an A320ceo ith new engines, most likely a new delivery aircraft diverted and disassembled for material and dimensional analysis. Still next time their young engineers can optimize a new design suited for its missions and if money keeps flowing allowing 2-3 iterations they are as good as Airbus. But it will cost plenty and the old politicians can be afraid of misstakes and enforce cheaper western copies instead of new designs. We will see.

    • China didnt jump in the deep end with ARJ ….it was an existing design DC-9/MD80. The re-designed wing was done by Antonov. Then the development took from 2002 .The production rate is something like 2.5 pm.
      Being a product of state owned enterprises and bought by state owned airlines ( mostly) has been crucial.
      Its a great little plane , but not a great leap forward.
      Mitsubishi was way out of its depth- as its existing development and production was military fast jets, and this plane was starting from scratch and not based on any previous license built plane . For their own strange reasons Mitsubishi didnt work with Bombardier – who they produce the wings for the Global express for- on this CRJ type replacement. Both needed major partners – each other – for the Cseries and the Spacejet

      • ‘Its a great little plane , but not a great leap forward.’

        Pun intended?

        ‘For their own strange reasons Mitsubishi didnt work with Bombardier ‘

        I think this is very telling to Scott’s point – both companies in Japan and Canada (which could be described as technologically advanced countries) struggled with their jets. One got out, one sold out.

        And these are countries with a long history of aviation.

        Comac sure does have a mountain to climb.

        • Comac has all the cash China can provide unlike BBD or Mitsubishi where in the end bossiness realities came to drive the decisions.

          Sure you can put a square peg in a round hole if you have a big enough hammer.

          The key difference is COMEC is Chinese government owned and managed, BBD, Mitsubishi and Airbus/Boeing are not.

  2. Yes, Comac C919 uses the same western production equipment as Airbus and Boeing. (e.g. Fuselage sections-Gemcor, wing panels Gemcor and wing FAL-EI, final assembly line AIT)

    At this time, the ARJ 21 has 2 FALs (one with robots), so even if they get one aircraft month from each ….call it 50 a year…over 10 years 500 aircraft And that’s 500 aircraft the west didn’t get

    • Assuming the West can sell aircraft in the ARJ21 class that would be true but China has been extremely restrictive on anything below the Airbus and Boeing single aisles.

      That cannot be emphasized enough, the Chinese government owns the whole aviation enterprise from buying, assigning aircraft that are bought, to Airspace owned by the military, who gets what routes as well as the AHJ.

      The C919 will slowly work its way up to 150 a year, Boeing will be doing 500+ single aisle and Airbus has ambitions to hit 700 or a bit better.

      As Leeham has noted (or more accurately, wrote whole series on it) China will never be able to supply its own market, it needs Airbus and Boeing.

      In China aircraft mfg is a status thing, not a commercial enterprise.

      A great deal of foreign success with products in general has to do with low costs and Western shipping of tech and stealing of that tech in various degrees. China was a huge beneficiary of both.

      Now as far as mfg, you see companies expanding in other low cost markets not China.

      • Trans
        I have been afraid of the E175E2 and E190E2 selling into China and worry like hell that Embraer is a Chinese acquisition target. They are ARJ 21 class and really economical. When Boeing struck a deal and then backed out, I was expecting a Chinese investment to materialize immediately. Today the Chinese are working hard on improving Brazilian relations, and nothing would be a better fit than the EJets for most of China’s trunk routes. If EMB was acquired, China skips 2 generations ish of development AND gets the 2 things they need the worst. An EASA approved certification organization holding TCDS’s for in production aircraft and perhaps more importantly, a global customer support organization already servicing the existing fleet

        • Too small. The traffic density and airspace restrictions due to military having a major share means that a ‘regional’ aircraft is the ARJ21. Which is a fine plane for their needs.
          The other part is that the E series arent mostly made in Brazil, structural parts come from major western suppliers including Triumph at Everett WA! That was Embraer’s success story , being a developer and systems integrator of major fuselage-wing sections from elsewhere as well as the internals systems and engines. I dont think China needs another entirely ‘western’ airliner for their country, although they did begin negotiations with Bombardier on the Cseries before Trudeau stepped in to force the famous C$1 for 50% deal with Airbus- that was all the IP and just the Mirabel final assembly line

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