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?
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.
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 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.