PARIS: Bullish Embraer maintains momentum

Since its launch at the Paris air show two years ago, Embraer has made steady progress on its re-engined, re-winged E2 E-Jet programme.

It had, heading in to Le Bourget, already accumulated some 242 firm orders across the three variants. This, it is worth pointing out, means it has already almost equalled Bombardier’s firm orderbook of 243 aircraft for the developmental CSeries, a figure that has been considerably longer coming.

And components for the first flight-test aircraft – an E190-E2 – are already being shipped to its São José dos Campos production line to begin final assembly ahead of a maiden sortie scheduled for next year.

It is perhaps unsurprising then that Paulo Cesar de Souza e Silva, chief executive of Embraer Commercial Aviation, exudes an air of confidence .

“Interest from the market has been quite good, we are very satisfied in this regard,” he says.

“We have 242 orders so far, plus options and other commitments it is almost 550. We have some strong names there, so this is positive. We launched this programme only two years ago and we have had very good interest from airlines.”

Certification testing will be performed with four E190-E2s and a single E195-E2 – both of which are powered by Pratt & Whitney PW1900G engines – and three E175-E2 prototypes, which use the smaller PW1700G powerplants.

There is no E170-E2, however, with Embraer having taken the view that there was not sufficient market interest in the smallest member of the E-Jet family – its backlog for the current-generation model totals just five aircraft at present – to warrant the complication and expense of developing a new version.

There is a small chance the E1 model could continue in production when its re-engined sister aircraft arrive from 2018, but Silva is unconvinced by the likely demand. The case is slightly different for the E175-E1, which could continue to be offered to the market if US pilot unions do not approve a scope clause change to allow bigger, heavier regional jets on which the success of the E2 model depends in North America. Service entry for the 44,650kg maximum take-off weight E175-E2 is scheduled for 2020.

"If there is no change, then of course we will continue to manufacture the E1. But it is difficult to say for how many more years – it could be two, it could be four, five... It depends on the scope clause," says Silva.

The airframer continues to build up its backlog of current-generation jets to bridge to the newer model. Embraer is, says Silva, “building that good transition quite nicely". Its delivery guidance for 2015 is 95-100 aircraft "and next year is coming along well too". The backlog of 212 E1 jets extends into 2017, before there is any sort of production gap. The E190-E2 is scheduled to arrive from 2018, with the E195-E2 following a year later.

Aside from the new engines, the twinjets gain new wings, landing gear, avionics and full-fly-by-wire controls, among other modifications. However, Silva says the intention has been to maintain cockpit commonality between the two aircraft iterations, to allow pilots to transition from one to the other in around 3h.

A number of big opportunities present themselves for E-Jets over the coming years, says Silva. These include the replacement of 50-seat jets such as its own ERJ-145 and the Bombardier CRJ200 in the USA; low-cost carrier growth in Europe and Asia; regional aviation in Brazil, China and, to a lesser extent, India; the replacement of turboprops in Asia-Pacific; and the use of the E195 as a “compact narrowbody” by mainline carriers looking to “right-size” aircraft for more efficient operation.

In all, it forecasts a total market for 6,250 regional jets over the next 20 years. If it maintains its 60% share of the 70-130-seat segment, that would see it delivering around 3,000 aircraft over the period. To put that into context, within 10 years of delivering the initial E1 E-Jets, it is now closing on its 1,200th delivery, a milestone that will be reached around September or October.

Of course, Embraer may be better known globally for its commercial aircraft, but it has a thriving defence business as well. Heading up the division is Jackson Schneider, whose biggest responsibility at present is ensuring the successful development of the KC-390 tanker and transport.

Since making its first – and only – flight on 3 February, the KC-390 has been kept in its hangar in what Schneider calls a "lay-up period", to allow the installation of all the instrumentation required for certification trials. The International Aero Engines V2500-powered KC-390 should return to the skies in the next two months. It will then be joined by a second flight-test prototype in around September or October this year.

Embraer will require around 2,000h of flight testing to attain military certification scheduled for late 2016, with first delivery to the Brazilian air force following that same year or in early 2017.

It’s an ambitious timeframe but Schneider is unconcerned. "If it was the first plane we were developing then I would be very scared, but it isn't." He adds: "We have a very proven and experienced engineering team."

So far, the only firm order for the twinjet has come from Brazil, which has committed to 28 examples. However, Embraer also holds letters of intent from five other nations, covering 32 aircraft. And Schneider is positive that additional deals will be signed off in the coming months.

"It brings to the market a new concept. It is a multipurpose aircraft with which you can fulfil different tasks, different applications, by only having to change the [mission] kits," he says.

“Now, when you buy an aircraft specifically to fight fires it stays grounded until the fires come."

Other products include the A-29 Super Tucano turboprop attack aircraft, which it assembles at its facility in Gavião Peixoto, Brazil and in Jacksonville, Florida, with output from the latter site at present dedicated to the US Air Force’s Light Air Support programme. So far seven aircraft from the 20-unit order ultimately destined for the Afghan air force have been delivered, and Schneider is confident of additional commitments for the Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6-engined aircraft – both from the USA, raising the total purchase to as many as 55 aircraft, and other overseas customers. "It is the only product for counter-insurgency applications that is designed for this purpose," Schneider says.

Other significant ongoing programmes include the development, in partnership with Sweden’s Saab, of a two-seat version of the Gripen NG combat aircraft destined for the Brazilian air force as part of its 36-aircraft deal. And there is also the Harpia unmanned air vehicle joint venture it is working on with Israeli firm Elbit Systems and local company Avibras. However, development of the category 3 (600kg/1,320lb) Falcão UAV is stalled pending a commitment from the Brazilian government.

"We are discussing it now but will require some time yet,” he says.

And another challenge is being posed by the sluggish Brazilian economy. This has contributed to government budget cuts – that inevitably threaten defence spending – and a fall in the value of the real, which has halved against the dollar over the last five years. This will cause a revenue fall of around 18% this year against 2014’s figure.

Embraer's efforts to expand its production footprint have also seen it opening a new facility in Évora, Portugal.

Back in 2010, when it announced it was opening a new production facility for both composite and metallic structures in the town, there were plenty of raised eyebrows.

Évora itself seems a strange place to locate a high-tech manufacturing plant. It has a charming Roman temple, steep cobbled streets and a thriving wine-making industry, but it feels more a natural home for tourists than engineers.

But now at the site on the southeastern fringe of the town – surrounded by vineyards of course – some two hours’ drive from Lisbon, production is slowly swinging into gear.

Operations at the factory began in 2012 with the first product to roll off the line the composite vertical and horizontal stabilisers and empennage for the Legacy 500 business jet. But now the Embraer Compósitos plant is also making the composite tail assembly for the KC-390 and is also likely to work on the E2 series. Its sister factory, Embraer Métalicas, is manufacturing wing skins for both the KC-390 and the current generation E175, and recently dispatched the initial shipset of wing skins for the first E190-E2 test aircraft on their lengthy journey to Brazil.

The decision to locate in Évora dates from a strategic review in 2008 which concluded that the company needed a broader technology portfolio and improved production capacity, explains João Pedro Taborda, director of external relations for the EMEA region. Portugal was eventually selected in part thanks to the common language, a “strong knowledge network” and both government and European funding to set up there. Plus, Embraer already owned a 65% share in Portuguese military MRO and structures firm OGMA, which had given it experience outside its home country.

The Évora facility is “not simply designed to copy the production in Brazil but bring entirely new competencies to the company”, explains Taborda. It is now slowly increasing the size and complexity of the parts produced and looking to “increase the levels of automation” and the size and complexity of components and sub-assemblies.

For instance, on the composites side, Embraer is evaluating whether it can produce the horizontal stabiliser and elevators for the E175-E2 at the site, taking over from Aernnova in Spain on the current-generation product.

“We are looking for a high volume automated process and that could be the product,” says Taborda.

And given that OGMA already produces parts for other manufacturers such as AgustaWestland, Airbus Defence & Space and Lockheed Martin, Taborda does not rule out the possibility of Évora following suit, provided it is a non-competing product.

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