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Made in Siberia: The Sukhoi Superjet

Former Soviet-era military plants in Russia's far east have been modernised and transformed into key production centres for the Sukhoi Superjet

The production effort for the Superjet 100 (SSJ) is being undertaken 6,000km (3,700 miles) away from the programme's engineering management headquarters in Moscow in the furthest corner of the Asian continent in Siberia. Low production costs are key to the potential success of the SSJ, which is otherwise equipped with the same level of high-value advanced-technology systems that feature on rival products being produced in the West, and Sukhoi has taken up the slack at two of its former military production plants in Russia's far east.

KnAAPO in Komsomolsk-on-Amur (in which Sukhoi holds a 74.5% stake) is undertaking most of the work (comprising wing construction and the main fuselage sections), while NAPO in Novosibirsk (of which Sukhoi owns 79.5%) is producing the forward and aft fuselage sections and the empennage. Meanwhile, Russian manufacturer VASO in Voronezh has a small role in the production effort producing the SSJ's composite parts. A final assembly operation has been set up by Sukhoi Civil Aircraft (SCAC) in Komsolmosk-on-Amur that has been partly spun out of KnAAPO to undertake SSJ final assembly.

The KnAAPO plant, which dates back to 1932, is Asia's largest aircraft manufacturing site employing 15,000 workers and occupying 75,000m2 (807,000ft2). Traditionally a military plant, its most recent product has been the Sukhoi Su-27/30 fighter series. But since the collapse of the Soviet Union and diminishing demand for Russian military aircraft, KnAAPO has been forced to restructure and switch its focus to the civil sector, which has seen it take the lead role in the production of the SSJ, as well as the Sukhoi Su-80 utility turboprop and the Beriev Be-103 six-seat amphibian. With their entrenched military background, KnAAPO managers had been suspicious of outsiders as the plant moved towards the civil sector, but the appointment of a new general manager late last year - the former chief engineer Aleksandr Pekarsh - has seen a change to a more pragmatic approach.

Komsomolsk-on-Amur is a remote city in the middle of the forest region of Russia's far east. Its population has declined by a third from the 300,000 at time of the Soviet Union's collapse - when every third inhabitant worked either at KnAAPO or at the Amursky shipbuilding plant, which specialised in submarines. Most KnAAPO employees had no alternative employment and thus tried to stay in their jobs even though they were not well paid.

The plant has been subject to ongoing investment in production technologies, and has been forced to implement further upgrades to handle the SSJ. "It was clear from the start that, using existing manufacturing equipment, we would never succeed in making the SSJ," says a senior KnAAPO manager.

KnAAPO adopted computed-aided design and manufacture (CAD/CAM) around 20 years ago, but the SSJ is its first programme that is 100% digital in design. There are over 3,000 computers in the KnAAPO network, which are linked to Sukhoi's Moscow design office and headquarters.

The KnAAPO engineering centre's digital modelling department, which occupies a new building at the plant, employs 400 staff working in two shifts.

Software packages

While the Sukhoi design house generates the SSJ drawings using Dassault Systems/IBM Catia V5 software, Unigraphics has been KnAAPO's main CAD/CAM software package for 10 years, although it also uses AutoCAD and is gradually expanding the use of Catia. "We are not going to part with Unigraphics because it has proved workable, especially when it comes to developing software and control programs for machine tools," says KnAAPO.

However, engineers at KnAAPO admit there have been problems translating Catia drawings into Unigraphics, but say these were overcome. "We take the view that designers or engineers who mastered Unigraphics or AutoCAD should develop their skills in the use of these systems," says a senior source in the engineering centre. "We will not force qualified people to change to other software, and would prefer them to work without a hassle, concentrating on everyday production tasks rather than retraining. Their skills are very much needed now as the volume of computer work is dramatically increasing."

The KnAAPO engineering centre has undertaken design work on behalf of Sukhoi's design office, such as assisting in production of SSJ 3D drawings. Now the focus is shifting from design to manufacturing, and KnAAPO is developing software to control machine tools and other programmed equipment. To facilitate the SSJ production effort, in December 2005 Sukhoi established "SCAC Komsomolsk division" to undertake SSJ final assembly and flight testing. The division also has the authority to act as the local Sukhoi design office representative as far as SSJ drawings and changes to it are concerned.

Staff numbers

SCAC Komsomolsk employs 200 people - more than half of which transferred KnAPPO - but this number will rise to 650-700 (including 200 IT staff and managers, with the remainder blue-collar workers) when SSJ production swings into full gear.

In early 2006 four other KnAAPO workshops were dedicated to civil aircraft production, with step-by-step transfer from the military side. KnAAPO director for civil programmes Aleksandr Drobyshev says this was needed due to the "continuing transfer of US and European technologies, wider industrial co-operation and the need to avoid complications caused by KnAAPO's continuing military production".

The SCAC Komsomolsk operation uses an area of the KnAPPO plant that comprises a final assembly line building (originally built for Su-27 assembly, but never used), a delivery centre, a podding facility for the SSJ's PowerJet SaM146 engines, and an airline offices building (see graphic). The delivery centre will be responsible for handovers of SSJs to all domestic customers and operators in countries that traditionally acquire CIS-built aircraft. It will be ready to handle the handover of the initial batch of aircraft to Aeroflot, which is due in late 2008. A second delive-ry centre is also planned as part of the sales and support joint venture that Sukhoi is creating with Alenia Aeronautica to handle international deliveries and is likely to be in Toulouse.

The final assembly building and paintshop is operating and will produce around six SSJs a month when production reaches top gear in 2011. The line is designed to accommodate the proposed 110-seat stretch and comprises six workstations:

  • Station 1 - fuselage assembly

Here the five fuselage subassembly sections (NAPO-built F1 and F5 and KnAAPO-built F2, F3 and F4) are joined. Some wiring and piping is fitted and the Honeywell auxiliary power unit is installed. Doors and windows are installed, and the NAPO-built fin and horizontal stabiliser are attached.

  • Station 2 - wing/fuselage mating

With the fuselage hanging on moveable and adjustable supports the wing is attached. Landing gear is attached and internal bays sealed.

  • Station 3 - leak test

Airframe moved on landing gear. Internal bays are tested for leaks, and airframe for precision assembly. More wiring and piping installation undertaken.

  • Station 4 - system installation

Actuators, servos, other control devices are installed, as well as other elements of control, hydraulic, environmental control and oxygen systems. Wiring is tested for correct installation.

  • Station 5 - power-on

The on-board electric power system is tested and avionics are installed and tested.

  • Station 6 - engine installation

Engines and nacelles are attached. Remaining cabin interior (including passenger seats) and emergency exit elements installed. The complete aircraft is then rolled out for post-assembly inspection.

The static test specimen (MSN 95002) was the first SSJ airframe to be completed. It was shipped to Zhukovsky near Moscow in late January by Antonov An-124 Ruslan and will be tested in the central aerohydrodynamics institute TsAGI.

While airframe 95002 was produced using hand riveting and dummy systems, the first flying SSJ prototype (MSN 95001) - production of assemblies for which is well advanced - will be a mix of hand- and machine-riveted subassemblies, and it will be equipped with prototypes of the on-board systems. Final assembly of 95001 is to start in March, with roll-out scheduled for September and first flight by year-end.

As some of the new production equipment was not installed in time for the first two airframes, these will differ in build standard from the next batch of four pre-production airframes, of which three will be flying aircraft and one will be the fatigue test specimen).




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