ANALYSIS: Japan aims at aerospace comeback with MRJ

Singapore
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Banned from aircraft manufacturing after the Second World War, and after years of supplying parts to foreign airframers, Japan's aerospace industry is planning a big comeback with its Mitsubishi MRJ regional jet.

Over the years, Japanese suppliers have played an increasing role in the manufacturing of Boeing aircraft, the most recent of which is the airframer's 787 where Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) supplies about a third of the aircraft, including its composite centre wing box. This is a steady increase from being responsible for about 15% of Boeing's 767 and 20% of its 777.

In 2007, the Japanese boldly entered new territory when Mitsubishi launched its regional jet concept at the Paris air show, complete with a full-scale cabin mock-up. Then, the concept called for the aircraft to have an all-composite airframe, the first of its kind in the regional jet market.

As time passed however, Mitsubishi has taken a more conservative approach towards its regional jet. While MHI supplies composite wing boxes to Boeing for its 787s, Mitsubishi has decided to go with aluminium for its jet's wing box after engineers apparently found that the composite material did not deliver the expected weight savings. The aluminium wing box, Mitsubishi says, will allow a shorter lead time for structural changes, and the wings can also be optimised to match the attributes of each MRJ variant.

The airframer says composite materials now account for about 12% of the jet's weight, and are used in areas such as the horizontal tail and vertical tail, spoiler, flight control surfaces, belly fairing and pylon fairing.

This is a crucial year for the MRJ programme as all eyes are watching to see if it will realise its first flight target, set for the fourth quarter of 2013. The first flight, originally scheduled for late 2011, has been pushed back twice.

Despite expectations of a delay within the industry, Mitsubishi told Flight International in May that no changes have been made to the MRJ's schedule and reiterated that its first flight is still expected to take place as scheduled.

Sticking to its timeline, analysts say, is critical to the MRJ's success as airlines are cautious about placing orders for new aircraft and basing their business strategy on aircraft delivery. Delays hurt orders because airlines cannot risk delays in aircraft delivery in this competitive industry, they add.

Mitsubishi tells Flight International that it is now conducting the sub-assembly of its first flight test aircraft, and that jigs, documents and components have been prepared at the MHI Tobishima plant. It adds that the first part of the sub-assembly involves the centre wing box, fuselage and wings, and that fabrications of parts for the following test vehicles have also started.

"The next big step will be the final assembly that will start at MHI's Komaki South plant," says the airframer. It did not, however, give a timeline on when it expects final assembly to start.

Going by what Mitsubishi chairman and chief executive Hideo Egawa told Flight lnternational in an interview at the Farnborough air show last year however, Mitsubishi appears to be cutting it close to its schedule.

Egawa had said that the first flight test aircraft is expected to be rolled out in early 2013, at least four months before it conducts its first flight in the fourth quarter of 2013. This means that by about now, Mitsubishi should have its first flight test aircraft ready.

In that same interview, Egawa also said that the need for more detailed engineering work and the non-compliance of some fabrication procedures were the main reasons behind the delay of the MRJ, announced in April 2012.

Japan has since granted Mitsubishi permission to carry out design inspections, normally undertaken by the government, which is expected to expedite the progress of the MRJ. This will allow Mitsubishi to make additional changes to the aircraft design while manufacturing and conducting various tests, rather than having to approach and wait for the government to give the green light.

With the detailed design frozen, the airframer says there have been no changes made to the MRJ. It, however, continues to gather minor improvements to facilitate the production process, reduce weight and cost, and also improve maintenance and operations.

Questions were raised about a possible delay to the MRJ programme when Pratt & Whitney, which is supplying its geared turbofan (GTF) powerplant to the MRJ, said in January that the certification of the PW1200G had been pushed back to the latter half of 2014, or up to 12 months after the MRJ's first flight.

Its president David Hess, however, later clarified that "the engine will not delay the programme" and that "when the aircraft is ready, the engine will be ready with it".

He adds that P&W is also working with Mitsubishi to ensure that the certification programme for the engine is "synced up" with the certification programme of the airframe. Mitsubishi, for its part, has also said that it can start test flights before the engine completes certification.

The airframer would not say anything more than that it plans to obtain type certification of the MRJ by the first delivery.

Mitsubishi will be using seven test aircraft to speed up certification. Five of the jets will be used for flight tests and is expected to accumulate around 2,500 flight hours. The other two will be for ground tests - one for fatigue strength test and the other static strength test.

Mitsubishi has so far garnered firm orders for 165 MRJs and 160 options, although it recently cancelled a memorandum of understanding with Hong Kong-based ANI Group, its first Asian customer outside of Japan, for five MRJs. No reasons were given.

Delivery to launch customer All Nippon Airways is scheduled for 2015, followed by delivery to Trans States Airlines in 2016 and to US-based SkyWest Airlines in 2017.

SkyWest's order for 100 MRJ90s, with an option for additional of the aircraft type, gave the MRJ programme a major boost last December.

Now, however, Mitsubishi also has the added challenge of taking on Embraer as the Brazilian airframer announced that it will be revamping its E-Jets. The aircraft will have new wings and fly-by-wire avionics, with entry into service set for 2018.

Analysts say airlines are more likely to stick to known airframers such as Embraer and Bombardier in the regional jet market, although Mitsubishi does have the advantage of being the launch customer of the GTF.

Even home carrier Japan Airlines has said that it is not keen to add a new aircraft type to its fleet, and the re-engined E-Jets could be a better solution for the airline as it looks to replace its Bombardier CRJ200s. Industry sources add that the airline is also worried about the purchase price and operating cost of the MRJ, and has doubts about Mitsubishi's ability to provide proper post-sales customer support.

"While airlines evaluate the Embraer offering, it might slow down sales for the MRJ. We saw this happen to the CSeries when the neo and Max were proposed and then offered. MRJ needs to be able to stress the benefits of their aircraft, the re-engining of the E-Jets is in part to make them more competitive with the MRJ," says Paul Sheridan, Flightglobal Ascend's head of consultancy for Asia.

Mitsubishi has, however, expressed confidence that its MRJ will stay ahead of the curve even as Embraer revamps its E-Jet, even though it would not discuss the possible impact that the revamped E-Jet could have on its sales.

"We're confident that the newly-developed MRJ will have a lot of technological advantages, and is designed to extract the best GTF engine performance against the E-Jet G2 even as Embraer revamps their existing E-Jet system," Mitsubishi's vice-president of business planning Hank Iwasa tells Flight International.

He adds that the advantage of the MRJ is not only based on the GTF engine, but that the aircraft also incorporates next generation engineering technology and an aerodynamic design that "sets it apart from the competitors".

Mitsubishi is expecting the MRJ to cut fuel consumption by 20%, as compared with other regional jets, because of its advanced aerodynamics, weight reduction and next generation engine. The cabin also boasts a 31in (78.7cm) seat pitch and a 18.5in seat width, more generous than that of the CRJ700 series.

Going forward, analysts say the MRJ needs to establish a global customer support network for aftermarket services, especially to ensure sufficient support to airlines at entry into service. For its part, Mitsubishi has tied up with Boeing to provide 24/7 customer support for the MRJ. This will include providing spare parts, service operations and field services.

"Mitsubishi will of course be responsible for customer support for the MRJ, but with the support of Boeing, we will be able to provide fully-sufficient support from day one. Together with Boeing we have been conducting studies of the services we should offer to airlines," says the airframer.

Sheridan believes Mitsubishi needs to go beyond its partnership with Boeing: "The partnership will help but some airlines will want to wait and see them prove themselves. Getting more orders always helps this process also because airlines can become confident that pools of spare parts will be easily available."

Mitsubishi will be showcasing an 8m (26ft) long cabin mock-up of its MRJ, the same one it displayed at Farnborough last year, at the Paris air show.