Such is the popularity of the next generation of narrowbodies from Airbus – and to a lesser extent right now, Boeing – that production rates are being lifted to unprecedented levels.
Airbus had already promised to raise A320 output to 50 a month from 2017 across four production lines. But now, based on a backlog of more than 4,300 of its re-engined Neos, it will hike the rate even further – to an eye-popping 60 aircraft each month from 2019.
Boeing, with a firm backlog of 2,869 orders for its 737 Max – not to mention 1,337 for the current NG family – is in a similar position. It plans to increase production at its Renton, Washington assembly line to 52 per month from 2018.
The European airframer says it has stress-tested its orderbook and is confident that rate-60 – and possibly higher in the future – is a sustainable increase.
Yet not everyone shares the sense of optimism emanating from Toulouse. Even for a moment assuming that the world economy does not experience a hiccup, let alone a repeat of the calamitous events of 2008, there are doubts that the latest rate hike is required.
Based on current forecasts, analysts have pointed to a potential oversupply of 200 aircraft by 2019, and that is without factoring in the effects of a potential matching output increase from Seattle.
If there were a global economic slowdown, then how many more 'white tails' would the airframers end up churning out?
An equal, if not larger, worry for the aerospace industry will be the ability of the supply chain to cope with soaring production volumes.
The large tier-one suppliers are likely to have the financial resources to invest in the raw materials, manpower, facilities and equipment required. However, you do not have to travel far down the supply chain to see that that does not hold true for every company. And those smaller businesses churn out vital components for every engine or fuselage assembly.
Equally, size is no guarantee of success, as Zodiac Aerospace’s well-documented travails in the cabin segment illustrate.
It does not take too much in the way of mental gymnastics to project the effects of a similar bottleneck on future narrowbody production.
Nonetheless, Airbus remains confident in both its customer base and suppliers.
Should it have read the runes incorrectly, however, this will be a costly mistake for its big moneymaker.
Source: Flight International