VIDEO: Three-Way Battle for Huge Global Single-Aisle Airliner Market Begins

COMAC C919, Boeing 737MAX and Airbus A321 fight for a trillion dollars in business.

Every manufacturer perceives its market to be a tough one. Some have high capital costs or expensive R&D requirements while others have extensive government regulation or brutal global competition.

If you’re in the commercial airframe and power plant business, however, you have all of the above.

Add in lead times that can push production back by more than a decade in length for a major new program and you have the ultimate variable: a new product which may launch into an economic recession that can’t be predicted at project start.

From where we sit now in the Great Recession, very large aircraft appear to be a bust. Neither the Airbus A380 or the Boeing 747 is selling well, but in the smaller single-aisle airliner market it’s a different story. 

Airbus has received certification and is ready for production ramp-up of its new A321, while Boeing has quietly launched its latest iteration of the venerable 737, the 737 MAX.

It’s not hard to imagine where Boeing and Airbus expect market growth: Asia. They see it in China specifically and the Chinese see it too: after a 13-year R&D cycle, they’ve begun deliveries of the new Cormac ARJ 21 to a domestic airline.

How big is the Chinese market? Boeing predicts that almost $1 trillion will be spent on airliners in the country over the next 20 years, representing over 6300 airframes. 

The ARJ 21 is a smaller “regional” jet, but it’s just the beginning for Cormac. The firm is building a direct competitor in the single aisle segment, the C919. What’s the significance? This aircraft contains about half offshore content, including engines from General Electric.

How big is that single-aisle market? Boeing estimates that it will represent 4600 airframes over the next 20 years and represent about half of that trillion dollars in aircraft spending. 

That’s a lot of aircraft and Boeing has over 5000 airframes in its backlog. Significantly, three quarters of those are 737s. At current production rates, it would take Boeing about eight years to fill the orders, a situation which clearly isn’t sustainable. 

To address this, Boeing has added a third assembly line at its Renton, Washington facility and did it without interruption of the 42 airframe-per-month production rate from the original lines. 

This is itself a remarkable achievement: we’re talking airliners here, not washing machines. Boeing managed it by heavily automating the production line, including drilling and riveting tasks previously done by hand.

It’s a significant change. Aircraft construction is inspection-heavy and skilled workers can tell by sound and feel when a rivet, pin or bolt is installed correctly and when it isn’t. 

Skilled personnel correct these problems before they’re caught by inspection, but the new automated fixtures, built by Electroimpact in nearby Mukilteo, Washington can match or exceed manual drilling and riveting quality at breakneck speed.

Boeing’s other secret is Lean manufacturing. It has outsourced significant portions of the airframe so that many subassemblies arrive kitted or partially assembled and ready for integration to the airframe. 

Logistics is a major consideration of these production rates and a new system for staging incoming parts keeps the line moving.

That’s great, but what about the Chinese government’s well-known system of protection for domestic manufacturers? Boeing will wedge the door open by building a 737 Completion Center in China. Airbus has one and it’s likely that either or both will move toward full-on airframe assembly in the future.

Why? One reason is China’s 17 percent value-added tax, which is levied on foreign aircraft. 

Several sources, including the United Steelworkers Union, claim this tax is not paid by domestic Chinese businesses due to a complex series of subsidies. 

The Chinese market is massive, but will we get a significant part of the work? Unlike the West, they’re all about building a manufacturing infrastructure by any means necessary, so watch for a major shift of manufacturing capability to the mainland.

Written by

James Anderton

Jim Anderton is the Director of Content for Mr. Anderton was formerly editor of Canadian Metalworking Magazine and has contributed to a wide range of print and on-line publications, including Design Engineering, Canadian Plastics, Service Station and Garage Management, Autovision, and the National Post. He also brings prior industry experience in quality and part design for a Tier One automotive supplier.