ANALYSIS: Embraer concepts reveal work continues on all-new narrowbody airliner

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Embraer is carefully preparing for a narrowbody airliner that could succeed a re-engined and possibly re-winged E-Jet family sometime after 2025.

Early concepts showing a new airliner with high-aspect ratio wings and ultra-high-bypass ratio engines mounted over the aft fuselage between a noise-shielding split-tail were revealed by Embraer in a presentation at LABACE in mid-August.

However, the new configurations are likely only initial designs. Antonini Puppin Macedo, a conceptual aircraft designer for Embraer, calls them "very preliminary".

But they offer a window into Embraer's ongoing effort to prepare to defend its hard-won turf in the commercial aircraft sector against new competitors from China, India, Japan and Russia.

Embraer had been close to launching a new narrowbody airliner until last November, but then took a step back to avoid challenging the re-engined and upgraded Boeing 737-7 Max and Airbus A319neo in the 130-seat class.

Embraer instead decided to re-engine its current E-Jet family that occupies the market segment just below the 120-seat threshold, with entry-into-service scheduled no later than 2018.

But it is clear that decision only postponed Embraer's goal to eventually field an all-new narrowbody aimed at the 130-seat market provided that Airbus and Boeing vacate the segment, with their all-new narrowbodies in the future ranging between 150-220 seats.

Macedo's presentation revealed that Embraer is steadily and deliberately working on the technologies that will be necessary to compete for orders in a market segment that has been dominated by the Airbus-Boeing duopoly for 25 years.

The presentation showed pictures of new laboratories managed jointly by Embraer and Brazilian universities. One slide showed an image of a laboratory focused on developing manufacturing techniques for low-weight composite materials. Another slide revealed a facility aimed at developing automated drilling systems for a complete fuselage barrel.

Macedo also described Embraer's methodical development of fly-by-wire technology, which is typical of the airframer's strategy to make incremental advances with every new product.

Embraer first developed a rudimentary fly-by-wire system with Aeritalia (now AleniaAermacchi) for the AMX fighter-trainer. The next system that appeared on the 170 airliner was a partial, open-loop fly-by-wire governing pitch and yaw but not roll, as the ailerons are controlled by a hydro-mechanical system.

With the Legacy 500, Embraer is integrating - with acknowledged difficulties - a closed-loop, three-axis fly-by-wire system for the first time. However, the system on the Legacy 500 and its sister 450 aircraft, developed by Parker Aerospace, could be the last time Embraer outsources the system. The KC-390 airlifter offers Embraer an opportunity to develop its own software for the flight control computer, which translates the sidestick inputs to the control surfaces and monitors the feedback.

By the time Embraer unveils an all-new commercial aircraft, it will have steadily matured an almost entirely in-house capacity to design and integrate a fly-by-wire control system.

Meanwhile, Embraer has steadily increased its usage of composites to now include all primary control surfaces and the fuel-carrying sponson of the KC-390. Embraer also is building a composite manufacturing facility in Evora, Portugal. "When it comes to the point of using these technologies, it's all linked," says Mauro Kern, executive vice-president for engineering and technology. "There's consistency to what's being developed in [the research and technology portfolio] to what's being used in the next programmes," Kern says.

Embraer's strategy is shaped by developing performance improvements and new technologies that reduce the cost of operating the next generation of commercial aircraft, especially in terms of fuel cost. Each year, a technology roadmap with a 10- to 15-year horizon is reviewed and updated, Kern says.

"We have today 40 - a little over 40 - different [research and technology] projects going on here in several different areas - cabin comfort and biofuels, for example," he explains. "We understand that in some areas we are maybe at the forefront of the technology already. In others, we are lagging behind, so we need to catch up."