Archive For August 31, 2012

A400M on track for 2013 deliveries

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Airbus Military have just announced that it will deliver the first four new generation A400M to customers in 2013 as planned, following the development of solutions to the recent engine issue. Flight tests had to be suspended after 160 hours of F&R flying because of the repeated detection of metallic chips in the oil system of one of the engines.  Airbus Military supported the engine manufacturer Europrop International (EPI) in its investigations of the root cause and fixes. EPI’s investigation showed that the failure does not impact an engines’ full capabilities and that the chip detection was provoked by a crack of a cover plate, a mechanical piece isolating elements within the Propeller Gear Box (PGB).

Consequently the civil Type Certification and military Initial Operating Capability (IOC) will now move into 1Q13, followed by first delivery to the French Air Force (MSN7) in the 2Q13. Despite this Airbus Military maintains the overall delivery plan of four aircraft in 2013. There is a slight impact on the delivery of the second French aircraft (MSN8) while MSN9 (the first Turkish aircraft) and MSN10 (the third for France) will remain on schedule with delivery before the end of 2013. Other deliveries in 2014 and beyond continue as planned.

Its good to see another program find its feet and move into steady deliveries.

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Is the Chinese freeze over?

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Earlier this year we noted Airbus’ concern with the ETS and its China orders being held up.  China has been at the forefront of battling with the EU and its new carbon tax on air travel.  China is not alone of course,  but China wields a big stick with aircraft orders.  Airbus has suffered even though it plainly has nothing to do with the ETS implementation.

This morning’s news that China has ordered 50 A320s is noteworthy. Interestingly the order includes 20 A320neos, China’s first order of the type. On the face of it the order appears to indicate the Chinese freeze on Airbus may have thawed.  It helps that Airbus has a factory in Tianjin. Airbus advises that the order will deliver from both EU and Tianjin. So even if the freeze is not quite over, the Tianjin factory ensures the freeze is limited.

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Wind map

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This image comes from this site. We captured today’s map because of the storm system over New Orleans.  We find this map fascinating because it shows how the wind patterns nationwide are impacted by the storm. This is clearly a map worth checking every day to better understand what is happening around the US.

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Why New Technology Airliners are Late

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The conventional wisdom from the 1960s through early 2000s that when Boeing or Airbus announces a new airplane, you can expect entry into service 48 months later no longer holds true.  We’ve seen significant delays for A380, 787, A400M and 747-8. Now, despite major lessons having been learned, additional, albeit smaller delays for A350XWB have been announced and we believe the first flight for the Bombardier CSeries will see a delay from December into the first quarter.

These delays occur despite longer development periods and additional slack in their schedules aimed at accommodating the “unknowns” that crop up in development.  What’s changed in the industry that is causing these delays, and will OEMs ever get “back on schedule” of delivering new technology aircraft on time?

Each of the new technology airliners under development had different reasons for delays, with one common thread — the complexities of supply chain integration and ensuring that multiple independent business entities were all pulling in the same direction at the same time.  All it takes is the failure of one part, or one fastener, and an aircraft can’t fly.  But aircraft have always had thousands of parts from a variety of suppliers. Why can’t the industry handle it today, especially since we have better communications than we’ve ever had? Companies share CATIA files across the Internet and we have e-mail and instant messaging. We should know much faster when we have a problem than in the 1960s, when communication relied on long distance calls, couriers, express mail and snail mail.

The New Realities of the Industry
Many delays relate to the management of complexity and the management of global supply chains, coordinating everything to come together at the right time.  In the old days, before the concept of offsets required OEMs to manufacture components in backwater locations to provide local content for aircraft, everything was done centrally, under the watchful eye of a management team that translated the drawings from engineering into metallic structures.  Today, an engineer in Seattle, Toulouse, Montreal or San Jose de Campos may design a structure using CATIA that will be produced by someone who speaks a different language, in a different culture, half a world away.

If that isn’t enough of an issue, add to that the complexities of using new materials, with new regimes for testing, new manufacturing processes, and the associated learning curves that come with each.  While the engineering software for analyzing strength of materials has advanced markedly, the designs being produced have often become more difficult to manufacture.  As a result, one of the lessons learned from earlier delays is to build manufacturing mock-ups to determine whether the designed concocted by engineers can readily be build on the assembly line without the need to hire contortionists to fasten components together.  Both A350 and CSeries benefit from such mock-ups, which will allow optimization of manufacturing processes and hopefully help move more quickly down learning curves.

Has the Industry Learned from Prior Failures?
Let’s examine some of the reasons programs have and are running late, and how the lessons that have been learned are currently being applied to new models.

The Airbus A380 story is now well known — as one part of the company upgraded to CATIA V while the other part was still using CATIA IV, and software incompatibility resulted in the massive bundles of wires on these aircraft to be a few millimeters short, resulting in excessive labor to rework the problems and long program delays.  It seems that everyone has learned this lesson, and today software version control is an essential element for every OEM and their suppliers – you must use this version of the software and not change during the development of the project, with every software update coordinated globally at the same time.

Boeing suffered multiple issues with its 787, ranging from tolerances of fuselage sections that didn’t fit well to a shortage of fasteners in the supply chain.  Boeing’s problems primarily flowed from the lack of experience in managing an international supply chain, compounded by the issues related to manufacturing learning curves with new technology composite primary structures.  The results were tremendous rework, and multiple delays to the program that cost it the strategic advantage it would have obtained if its planned Y1 new narrow-body development had followed an on-time 787 program.  Instead, it was forced to compromise with the Max to compete with the Airbus neo, costing it an opportunity to leapfrog Airbus technologically and gain market leadership.

Boeing has learned how to manage an international supply chain, which Airbus has known for years based on its structure, and Bombardier from its international supply chain for business jets and turboprops.  But the issues illustrated at Boeing caused each to beef up their program management efforts to ensure those issues wouldn’t occur with A350 or CSeries.

Why are We Seeing Delays?
So why are A-350 and, likely, the CSeries at the precipice of additional delays, if we’ve learned from the mismanagement experiences associated with other programs?  The answer is technological complexity and automation.  Software, rather than hardware, has become the major sticking points in the development of new aircraft.

While program management is improving, with iron birds for testing and fully integrated communication systems with international suppliers, two areas remain that continue to cause delays.  One is the learning curve with advanced materials, which is improving over time, and the second is keeping up with the more advanced requirements for software as manufacturing moves to multi-axis automated machinery and aircraft move to integrated digital systems for avionics and flight controls.

Advanced Materials
While both Airbus and Bombardier have experience with high technology materials, the extent of use in the two programs currently under development are higher, and more complex, than earlier programs.  The use of composites for primary structures is much more extensive for A350 than other Airbus products, and the system of skin on structure, while more traditional, requires new techniques and tolerances for composites that are more complex than for simply tail structures used on older programs.  While Bombardier has experience with composite wings from the Global Express, and a facility experienced with resin transfer molding, it is also pioneering Aluminum-Lithium alloys for the fuselage.  While manufacturing techniques are similar to those used for aluminum, the characteristics of Al-Li alloys behave slightly differently, resulting in minor but important changes to the manufacturing process.

The good news is that the industry is working well down the learning curve for advanced composites, just in time for the next generation of composite technologies to be introduced and re-start a new learning curve.  Second generation CRFP materials will be even lighter and stronger than first generation materials, but will introduce new wrinkles for manufacturing.  Keeping up with new technologies, after building from aluminum for many years, is a major cultural change for a manufacturing organization, and despite being dealt with well at both Airbus and Bombardier, can remain a source for delays, albeit not nearly as extensive as with 787.

The latest potential delay for A350 relates to software at a manufacturing plant for wings in Broughton, as this software is needed to control the robot that will drill holes in the wing.  This is an example of how information technology has become a critical path element in aircraft development programs.  Because managing software engineers has often been likened to herding cats, this is the other major area of concern in developing aircraft today.  Problems at Airbus appear to be confined to the manufacturing side rather than the fly-by-wire and flight management systems for the aircraft, as Airbus has considerable experience in this regard.

At Bombardier for the CSeries, concern remains over Parker, which is designing the fly-by-wire system for the aircraft and is rumored to be behind schedule. Margins are already gone in the program. Delays in software development today can result in shutting down an aircraft programs development while a supplier catches up, and ensuring the quality of millions of lines of code can be a difficult task.

We know a software expert from a major aerospace supplier in charge of quality control of software who explained how experts sometimes had difficulty translating comments from Russian and Hindi into English to understand fully how programs worked.  Double-checking everything takes time, and when software for flight critical systems is outsourced internationally, that can be even more difficult to accomplish. We’re glad that they are working diligently to make certain things are right.

The Bottom Line
While the time frame for the development of a new aircraft appears to be stabilizing, it looks like five to six years (If not longer) will be the new normal from launch to entry into service.  Each of the major companies have learned the lessons from failures to communicate and coordinate supply chains, and the importance of providing specifications to suppliers with enough lead time for them to produce their products.  While future programs will be better managed, and build on the collective organizational knowledge to more rapidly execute designs, it appears that software will become the constraining factor in development time lines.  Despite more advanced software tools, it appears that IT and software development have become the major constraints for new program development, and the next area of emphasis for OEMs.

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CSeries aircraft zero takes flight

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Bombardier provided this YouTube video showing the first flight of aircraft zero.  Note the moving parts on the mockup. Note also the extent of the technology deployed in the mockup site.  This demonstrates what we have been explaining about the next generation airplanes; the complexity is quite astounding. Don’t be surprised when the programs hit glitches and slow down.


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Meet kulula, a small airline with big attitude

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In South Africa there is a little airline called kulula that readers might enjoy learning about. The airline is owned by Comair, which also flies around Southern Africa as BA. Comair operates an LCC and a full service airline.

But, as one can imagine, its the LCC that generates the most fun.  Take a look at this video of the safety announcement. For non-African ears you may want to replay it a few times to pick up on the quirkiness.  kulula only has eight 737s.  But its impact is way bigger than its small fleet. Indeed, this private airline has to compete against a much larger state funded and supported competitor brings up instant comparisons with private Indian airlines competing with the same sort of (money losing, perennial tax payer supported) competitor.

Recently kulula took delivery of a new 737-800. Most places this sort of news would attract no attention. But not in this case. The airline did some clever PR – they found a look alike of the president and sneakily named him Jacob Z for the event.  Since the first flight with the 737 coincided with South Africa’s presidential new airplane debacle, there was clever use of that too.  Passengers turning up for the flight had no idea what they were in for.  As the video shows, the airline offered an  amazing meal plus other entertainment.

It was a stunning PR success.  You don’t need to be big to be clever.  You don’t need to fear a big state funded dinosaur either.  Clever PR stunts like this have built a following for little kulula. Take a look here at another example of how this airline is stirring things up.

Take a look: [youtube]


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