Ja­pan’s Mit­subishi sets sights on air­craft niche

The com­pany hopes to break into the in­ter­na­tional mar­ket with MRJ re­gional jet.

Los Angeles Times - - BUSINESS -

At a tightly guarded fac­tory in cen­tral Ja­pan, Mit­subishi, a maker of the Zero fighter planes of World War II, is launch­ing its MRJ re­gional jet and aim­ing to ful­fill Ja­pan’s long-cher­ished am­bi­tions to re­gain sta­tus as a ma­jor avi­a­tion power.

The com­pany said Fri­day that a re­cent de­ci­sion to push back the jet’s maiden flight from this spring to a few months later would not de­lay its com­mer­cial de­liv­er­ies. Work­ers were con­duct­ing hy­draulic and other tests on two of the test jets in a cav­ernous as­sem­bly fa­cil­ity; an­other jet had been sent out for paint­ing.

Com­pany ex­ec­u­tives are em­phatic about their de­ter­mi­na­tion and ur­gency to get the job done.

“This is the last chance to get into real air­craft man­u­fac­tur­ing. Mit­subishi Heavy In­dus­tries has a long-term vi­sion to get into the air­craft as­sem­bly in­dus­try,” said Hideyuki Kamiya, head of mar­ket­ing for Mit­subishi Air­craft Corp.

“We think we have a lot of po­ten­tial to give this in­dus­try. This is very high-tech work re­quir­ing skilled work­ers and en­gi­neers. We can com­pete in this area,” he said.

The quest re­flects a yearn­ing to trans­late Ja­pan’s en­gi­neer­ing and man­u­fac­tur­ing prow­ess into a first­tier air­craft in­dus­try with global reach, an am­bi­tion sub­sumed for decades af­ter Ja­pan’s 1945 de­feat.

The plan dove­tails with a na­tional blue­print for turn­ing the area near Nagoya into an aerospace hub on par with Boe­ing’s man­u­fac­tur­ing base near Seat­tle.

De­vel­oped partly with gov­ern­ment sup­port, the 70to 90-seat jet project also par­lays pre­vi­ous work by Mit­subishi on the Boe­ing 787 Dream­liner.

But years of de­lays are adding to the chal­lenge of com­pet­ing with Brazil’s Em­braer, which dom­i­nates the re­gional jet mar­ket.

“It’s eas­ier to put a man on the moon than to build an air­liner that air­lines want to buy,” said Greg Wal­dron, Asian man­ag­ing edi­tor at Flight­global in Sin­ga­pore. “It’s an ex­tremely high-risk, ex­tremely costly en­deavor.”

Mit­subishi ex­ec­u­tives note that their prod­uct is 20% more fuel ef­fi­cient than other lead­ing sin­gle-aisle jets be­cause it was en­gi­neered specif­i­cally to work with a Pratt and Whit­ney high-by­pass geared tur­bo­fan en­gine. Such en­gines are more ef­fi­cient be­cause they re­quire less jet thrust to pro­pel them through the air.

The jet also will be qui­eter and slightly roomier than com­peti­tors’ air­craft, they say.

The Mit­subishi re­gional jet is the suc­ces­sor to a failed at­tempt in the 1960s to break into the in­ter­na­tional com­mer­cial mar­ket with the 64seat tur­bo­prop YS-11. The aim this time is fi­nally to win Ja­pan a foothold in the lu­cra­tive com­mer­cial pas­sen­ger jet mar­ket.

Mit­subishi and Naka­jima Air­craft Co. — pre­de­ces­sor to Fuji Heavy In­dus­tries, the par­ent com­pany of Subaru — pro­duced nearly 11,000 Zero fighters. To­ward the war’s end, hun­dreds were used in kamikaze sui­cide at­tacks.

Af­ter Ja­pan’s de­feat, the U.S. oc­cu­pa­tion ini­tially banned air­craft mak­ing. It was re­vived in the 1950s. The avi­a­tion in­dus­try is a key sup­plier of com­po­nents for pas­sen­ger jets, most sig­nif­i­cantly the Boe­ing 787 Dream­liner, but mainly makes mil­i­tary air­craft for Ja­pan’s own de­fense force.

Although it holds lead­ing tech­nolo­gies in avion­ics, ma­te­ri­als and other key air­craft-re­lated know-how and prod­ucts, Ja­pan has yet to in­te­grate them into an en­tire com­mer­cial­ized pas­sen­ger air­craft.

“The real pres­tige in all this comes from be­ing the sys­tems in­te­gra­tor,” Wal­dron said. “You de­sign the air­craft and then you in­te­grate it, which is where the value re­ally comes in, and then can sell that abroad. It’s like a sym­bol of your coun­try’s prow­ess.”

Jiji Press

HIROMICHI MO­RI­MOTO, pres­i­dent of Ja­pan’s Mit­subishi Air­craft, speaks at a news con­fer­ence Fri­day about plans for the com­pany’s MRJ re­gional jet.

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