New Rus­sian jet her­alds man­u­fac­tur­ing shake-up

Car­bon-com­pos­ite parts higher in cost but re­sult in more ef­fi­cient fuel burn

The National - News - Business - - Inside Track -

Rus­sia’s new jet­liner, which con­ducted its maiden flight on Sunday, may have a hard time chal­leng­ing the sales du­op­oly of Boe­ing and Air­bus, but it does point the way to rad­i­cal changes in how those jets could be built in the fu­ture.

The MS-21, a new sin­gle aisle air­liner pro­duced by Rus­sia’s United Air­craft Cor­po­ra­tion, is the first pas­sen­ger plane borne aloft by light­weight car­bon-com­pos­ite wings built with­out a costly pres­surised oven called an au­to­clave. The man­u­fac­tur­ing process pro­vides a test for a tech­nol­ogy al­ready be­ing as­sessed by west­ern ri­vals, who are look­ing for cheaper and faster ways to build some of their air­craft with com­pos­ites, ac­cord­ing to aero­space ex­ec­u­tives and sup­pli­ers.

Even as it sets up the world’s largest au­to­claves to make wings for its giant 777X, Boe­ing is ex­plor­ing al­ter­na­tives for its “New Mid­size Air­plane” (NMA), in the mid­dle of the mar­ket be­tween its big wide-body jets and best-sell­ing 737.

“There’s a good chance part of the NMA will be built with­out au­to­claves,” a per­son fa­mil­iar with the project said. A Boe­ing spokesman said it was study­ing mid-mar­ket op­por­tu­ni­ties and de­clined fur­ther com­ment.

Sources say Boe­ing’s choice of tech­nol­ogy for its two-air­craft NMA fam­ily will lay the foun­da­tion for the next gen­er­a­tion of its money-spin­ning 737, ex­pected to ap­pear from 2030 and last well into the sec­ond half of the cen­tury.

Boe­ing has not yet dis­cussed this part of its strat­egy pub­licly, but in­dus­try sources said it may in­clude a trio of jets seat­ing 160 to 210 peo­ple and built us­ing broadly the same pro­duc­tion sys­tem as the one de­vel­oped for the NMA.

Both fam­i­lies of planes are likely to be built for 30 years and stay in ser­vice for an­other 20-30. So to­day’s tech­nol­ogy choices rep­re­sent a colos­sal 75-year bet. Air­bus is also mon­i­tor­ing the tech­nol­ogy as it con­sid­ers how to re­spond to Boe­ing’s mid-mar­ket jet, CNN re­ported last month. Air­bus has de­clined to com­ment on the re­port. Com­pos­ites have been used in avi­a­tion since the 1970s but achieved a break­through in the past decade as the Boe­ing 787 Dream­liner and Air­bus A350 en­tered ser­vice, promis­ing to save money on fuel by re­plac­ing most metal parts with lighter car­bon.

Those are long-haul jets, which means that the sav­ings on fuel are worth­while, even though the planes are ex­pen­sive to build. For short-haul planes that burn less fuel, like the NMA or fu­ture 737, it is more im­por­tant to find cheaper ways to build them, and avoid­ing the need for au­to­claves could help.

Bet­ting on tech­nol­ogy that does not re­quire an au­to­clave is a gam­ble also for com­pos­ite sup­pli­ers like US-based Hex­cel, Solvay of Bel­gium and To­ray of Ja­pan, whose share of aero­space man­u­fac­tur­ing is grow­ing.

At a re­cent JEC com­pos­ites fair in Paris, Hex­cel and Solvay show­cased out-of-au­to­clave pro­to­type parts as they gear up to sup­ply man­u­fac­tur­ers on a big­ger scale.

“It’s one of the big ques­tions now in aero­space: how to pro­duce out-of-au­to­clave on a large scale and at high speeds,” said Henri Gi­rardy, busi­ness devel­op­ment man­ager at Hex­cel Com­pos­ites, adding jet mak­ers would ac­cept no cut in per­for­mance.

Boe­ing’s Dream­liner and the Air­bus A350 are built from car­bon fi­bre al­ready im­preg­nated with resin, called “prepreg”, which is sup­plied to jet mak­ers, tai­lored by ma­chines into plane parts and cured inside giant pres­sure-cook­ing au­to­claves.

An­a­lysts say these parts cost 30 per cent to 40 per cent more to pro­duce than alu­minium. Un­der the new tech­nol­ogy, in­stead of us­ing fi­bre that is pre-im­preg­nated with resin, parts are made from a dry-fi­bre en­gi­neered tex­tile which is placed in a mould then in­fused with resin un­der a vac­uum.

The parts can then be cured in an oven with­out pres­sure, a process es­ti­mated to cost 25 per cent more than metal. Ul­ti­mately, that gap needs to nar­row sig­nif­i­cantly or dis­ap­pear. Boat­builders and wind­farm mak­ers have used this method for years.

But al­though Canada’s Bom­bardier partly used the tech­nique for its CSeries, it was rare for flight-crit­i­cal parts be­fore the de­sign­ers of the new Rus­sian plane chose it for the wing. The MS-21 has yet to score large sales but has been able to catch onto the lat­est man­u­fac­tur­ing wave at a time when west­ern gi­ants are start­ing to think be­yond their re­cently up­graded mod­els to fu­ture de­signs.

“This is an ex­cel­lent tech­nol­ogy demon­stra­tor be­cause it is on a real pro­gramme and a pri­mary-struc­ture part,” said Frank Nick­isch, global direc­tor of strate­gic projects at Solvay Com­pos­ite Ma­te­ri­als, which pro­vided ma­te­ri­als for the MS-21.

He noted that the wings on the MS-21 are of com­pa­ra­ble size to a Boe­ing 737 or Air­bus A320.


The MS-21 is a sin­gle-aisle air­liner pro­duced by Rus­sia’s United Air­craft Cor­po­ra­tion.

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