Bombardier Aerospace has temporarily reassigned responsibility for key components and work packages of its CSeries contracted to Chinese partner Shenyang Aircraft Corp. (SAC).

When Bombardier established the manufacturing system for its new 110- to 149-seat jet family, it allocated development and production of three fuselage sections—forward, center and rear—plus the empennage to SAC. It also charged the Chinese supplier with building the tail cone and wing-body fairing and center wing box.

But that work allocation has changed. Bombardier, at least temporarily, has taken fuselage assembly to Montreal, although the components are still being built in Shenyang. Industry sources also say that several of the work packages previously allocated to SAC have been temporarily transferred to Western suppliers. Spanish aerostructures specialist Aernnova confirms it has a contract with Bombardier to deliver 40 center wing boxes and tail cones for the CSeries before the work is shifted back to China. It is unclear how many sets of fuselage sections will be built in Montreal, but one aerospace executive claims about 10 aircraft could be affected.

While industry executives close to the CSeries are not saying the program is in jeopardy, it is clear that Bombardier has been forced to react to unexpected problems in airframe manufacturing. Several questions arise from the reallocation: Will the CSeries development and production schedule be affected? What will the program’s longer-term industrial set-up look like? And what does the process say about the readiness of the Chinese aerospace industry to become an increasingly important part of the global supply chain?

Bombardier says the published schedule will not change. The first CS100 is planned to fly by the end of the year, with final assembly starting in the coming weeks. The fatigue test aircraft is expected to be ready by September. The manufacturer plans to deliver the first CS100 to a yet-unidentified first operator by the end of 2013. That would still be within the range originally suggested when Bombardier formally launched the CSeries four years ago on the eve of the 2008 Farnborough Air Show.

The company says “it is very common for Bombardier to manufacture the initial shipsets of the more complex work packages of its new aircraft programs. The intention is to share best practices with suppliers, while allowing the same suppliers additional time to ramp up toward volume production.” That approach has always been “in the plan,” according to Bombardier. As for the temporary shift to Western suppliers, Bombardier states, “There are cases were third-party suppliers overlap work packages, but this is not a reallocated work package.” The company adds that SAC’s mandate “has not changed.”

As to when work will be moved to SAC, Bombardier says, “Here is no final date; it’s a progressive transfer following the initial shipset production.”

However, industry sources are expressing serious doubts that the overall situation is as unremarkable as Bombardier says. One aerospace executive, who was recently briefed on the status by Bombardier, says that the production process for the CSeries prototypes is far less advanced than that of the Airbus A350, the first flight test aircraft of which is scheduled to enter final assembly this month. But the latest Airbus model is scheduled to fly about half a year later than the CSeries.

Missed Deadlines

One aerospace executive says the final assembly of the first unit of a new aircraft should start at least one year ahead of first flight. The CSeries has not yet reached that milestone. Power on for the first flying aircraft in any particular program should be reached three to four months ahead of first flight, he adds. The CSeries would therefore have to be at that milestone by September at the latest.

Chinese engineers encountered problems with CSeries manufacturing, but perhaps no more than the usual difficulty expected in a new program, says one industry official in China.

SAC, which is mainly a combat aircraft builder, has given some of its CSeries work to its civil offshoot, SACC, which receives detail parts from SAC and builds the major assemblies for export to Canada. Reviewing the SACC business, President Pang Zhan spoke this year of such challenges as meeting customers’ ever higher demands for quality, and said his answer was to specialize. The company could not bring together the resources to properly build all parts of an aircraft, he said, so in developing its business SACC now concentrates on tail sections, doors and engine mountings, a much narrower range of work than it is conducting on the CSeries.

A representative of SAC referred Aviation Week to Bombardier.

One source with knowledge of the situation says it is “shocking that Bombardier has watched [problems unfold in China] and done nothing about it for so long.”

The contracts with Shenyang were announced in 2008 at Farnborough, two days after the formal launch of the CSeries program. In August 2009, Shenyang delivered a 23-ft. test fuselage barrel to Bombardier’s St. Laurent plant in Montreal. In March 2010, SAC started construction of the facility for building the fuselage sections. Less than two years ago, Bombardier is understood to have contacted suppliers, such as Aernnova, about stepping in temporarily to build some components. Aernnova delivered the first center wing box to Bombardier in January this year.

One aerospace executive says the cause of the problem lies in Bombardier’s supply chain management. SAC was unable to handle the manufacturer’s design tools, which are challenging when using Western data systems even without a language barrier, he says.

Another source hints at the difficulty of gaining the approval of Western authorities for large subassemblies developed and produced by China. Gaining approval is easier if the initial batch of aircraft is produced at home–Montreal in this case—and production is transferred to foreign suppliers at a later stage. “China has great difficulty in introducing the right procedures and documentation,” the executive says. Potential rework would be “very time-consuming.”

Market Potential

Xi’an Aircraft builds A320-family outer wing boxes to what Airbus calls a high standard, but did not begin doing so until Airbus had been building them for more than 10 years; at first, Xi’an did not make the complete assemblies. Similarly, SAC supplies wing parts for the A320 and A330 families.

Bombardier’s involvement with China has not only concerned finding cost-efficient and skilled suppliers. Like many other manufacturers, Bombardier sees China as a huge market. According to its latest forecast, Chinese airlines will buy 2,220 aircraft seating up to 149 passengers in the next 20 years–about the same as Europe, Russia and the Confederation of Independent States combined. Only North America is still a much larger market, with demand forecast at 4,700 aircraft.

As a result of that assessment, Bombardier has gone much further than any other commercial-aircraft integrator in its China exposure. That approach is aided by Chinese government funding—around $400 million in Chinese public money is believed to be invested in the CSeries project—but that money will only flow through the work shares of the state-owned suppliers in the country. Bombardier also is entering close collaboration with Chinese manufacturer Comac, which is developing its C919 narrowbody. The two companies aim to achieve a common cockpit design for the C919 and the CSeries and plan to cooperate in other areas. There have even been suggestions that China might look at buying Bombardier Aerospace outright, although that has not yet materialized.