Bombardier turning to China for manufacturing

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Shenyang Aircraft is indicative of how much China is changing. SAC's Huanggu industrial base is next to the Beiling airbase, China's oldest military airbase and just 190 kilometres (120 miles) from the border with North Korea.

During the Korean War SAC helped maintain MiG fighter jets used in the conflict.

SAC factories at Huanggu mostly date from the 1950s and were built with the help of Russia, China's closest ally at that time. It was Russia that was helping the Chinese Communist party to rebuild China in keeping with the communist doctrine of "workers' paradise".

The 1950s-era factory that Flight International visited has an entrance lobby with decorative flooring made of crushed marble. From the ceiling hang old, and somewhat dusty, chandeliers. Once past the lobby one steps on to the large shopfloor that looks surprisingly modern.

leithen francis/flight international
 © Leithen Francis/Flight International

A few years ago this particular building was used by SAC to make buses but the company later decided to focus on its core competency. It cleared out the buses and refurbished the factory, which is now used to make aircraft parts, mostly for Bombardier, but also for Airbus and Boeing.

RED BANNERS

Hanging from the concrete ceiling girders above the shopfloor are large red banners. One might assume the Chinese characters on the banners are espousing communist propaganda, but in fact these are quoting from the Six Sigma, the process that US companies such as Motorola developed in the 1980s and 1990s to achieve quality improvement and remove defects in manufacturing processes.

SAC's commercial arm makes aircraft doors but has moved up the value chain to make the forward and aft fuselage as well as the empennage for Bombardier's Q400 turboprop.

In terms of additional Q400 work, it has secured a contract to make the mid-fuselage, a task that until now has been handled by Bombardier's Belfast factory in the UK.

SAC director of Bombardier programmes Fu Peng says that SAC will deliver its first Q400 mid-fuselage at the end of November. Next year, the company aims to deliver nine Q400 mid-fuselages in addition to 48 shipsets of forward and aft fuselage as well as empennages, he adds.

leithen francis/flight international
 © Leithen Francis/Flight International

But SAC's most ambitious, and high profile, project for Bombardier is its work on the CSeries, the new 110/130-seat passenger aircraft the Canadian aircraft-maker hopes will leapfrog Airbus and Boeing narrowbodies in the technology stakes.

SAC is making the aluminium-lithium fuselage and doors for the CSeries as well as the tail-cone structure that will be made of composites as well as aluminium alloys and titanium alloys.

Bombardier new commercial aircraft programme director Ben Boehm says the company has also decided that SAC will be making the wing-to-fuselage wingbox for the CSeries.

Bombardier's Belfast unit and SAC are working on the design of the wing-to-fuselage wingbox and initially this section will be made in Belfast, says Boehm.

Production will later shift to SAC and all the aircraft delivered to customers will have wing-to-fuselage wingboxes made in China, he says, adding that it makes sense to let SAC produce this section because it is integral to the fuselage.

The Chinese firm already has experience with composites because it "has done a lot of cowlings and fairings for ourselves and Boeing", says Boehm.

SAC also has experience with composites because its military arm makes Chinese fighter aircraft that incorporate composite materials.

Boehm says SAC was chosen to work on CSeries because the Canadian aircraft maker was "looking for a tier-one supplier in Asia-Pacific" that has "a strong design capability".

He says: "Our strategy is not just to have suppliers that build to print but take on design work. SAC is part of the Aviation Industry Corporation of China, so it has design experience." AVIC is the country's main state-owned aerospace manufacturing conglomerate.

SAC has 50 engineers at Bombardier in Montreal, mostly learning about the Canadian company's design processes.

These engineers will soon return to China where they will work on the detailed design of the CSeries' aluminium-lithium fuselage.

The next major focus "is the preliminary design review in the fall or early winter" and then "we will graduate into the detailed design phase", says Boehm.

SAC in mid-July completed a 7m (23ft)-long aluminium-lithium fuselage for the CSeries. Bombardier engineers refer to this as the test barrel, which has been shipped to Canada.

To get the aircraft into service in 2013 Bombardier has decided to first build test demonstrators, says Boehm. "In the next couple of months we will expand and contract everything on the [test barrel] fuselage to see how it behaves," he says. This will ensure that the design is "sound".

This test barrel was built at a new factory SAC has in Shenyang's Dongling district, in the south of the city and next to Shenyang Taoxian International airport.

This factory falls inside the Shenyang National Aviation and High-Tech Industrial Base, a new economic zone China's National Development Reform Commission has approved, according to SAC Commercial Aircraft president Pang Zhen.

Pang says SAC's commercial arm is getting more work from Western aerospace firms because "as competition gets tougher, most customers need to reduce costs and there is a tendency for them to move production to low-cost areas".

He adds: "Cost is a key factor, but one should consider the reliability and the credibility of the supplier as well. We have the advantage in cost and our manufacturing workmanship is improving. The quality we produce is as good as the product produced by our customers."

EXPANSION PLANS

Flight International visited the factory in Dongling where the CSeries test barrel was built and saw detailed plans for the future expansion of the Dongling site. The building is referred to as A01, but SAC plans more.

Construction is expected to start shortly on A02, which will be dedicated to the manufacture of sheet metal, say SAC executives. There are plans for A03 and A04, which will be dedicated to the CSeries and ARJ21 programmes respectively. The ARJ21 is a 90-seat regional jet aircraft that is being built by Shanghai-based Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China. SAC has the contract to make the aircraft's empennage.

leithen francis/flight international
 © Leithen Francis/Flight International

The drawings show plans to build a research and development centre at Dongling as well as an administrative building and two other factories, one dedicated to parts manufacture for Airbus and another for parts manufacture for Boeing.

The administrative building will house SAC Commercial Aircraft, the commercial arm of SAC that officially separated from SAC last year, as part of China's push to formally separate its military and commercial aircraft manufacturing businesses.

Once the additional buildings are built at Dongling, SAC's commercial manufacturing will have shifted to this newer site. The move will mean that the old site will concentrate on military aircraft.

SAC has come a long way since the days when it relied on Russia. Some of the factory buildings may date from the 1950s, but there is nothing old school about the manufacturing taking place inside.