How Mitsubishi Aircraft must regret the delay of its regional jet program. When the ink was barely dry on its April announcement that first delivery would be up to two years late, the company signed a preliminary agreement to supply 100 of the aircraft to U.S. carrier SkyWest.
Then SkyWest Airlines said it would quite like to order more than 100 MRJs. More recently, partly because of the endorsement from SkyWest, interest from North American carriers is stronger than ever, says Mitsubishi Aircraft. If only it had plenty of early production slots to spare. If only it could begin delivering aircraft late next year, as originally planned, instead of late 2015, or even early 2016, as now promised.
Like any manufacturer that has told customers their aircraft will be late, Mitsubishi Aircraft is looking at whether it can ramp up production faster than it planned when it launched the program in 2007. But the company is going further than that. It hopes it can increase the maximum production rate beyond the scheduled five aircraft a month. Yet it is also concerned about causing new foul-ups by being too aggressive. The industry well remembers the chaos that resulted from's over-eager attempts at ramping up production in the late 1990s.
The intended order from SkyWest, which Mitsubishi Aircraft expects to be finalized this year, will considerably increase the challenge of clearing the backlog, says Hirohide Takaseki, director of strategic planning in the project management office. Pending a final contract from SkyWest, Mitsubishi Aircraft has orders for 65 MRJs from(15) and Trans States Airlines of the U.S. (50). Indonesian lessor ANI Group Holdings has said it will order five more. If the intended orders are realized, then Mitsubishi Aircraft will have 170 MRJs to deliver, almost three years of production at full rate, not counting options—and not counting further orders, which can only be inhibited by the difficulty in making early deliveries.
The program delay was a result of a foul-up in the documentation that was supposed to detail exactly how the aircraft was made. The mistake has led not just to a need to make parts again, which airframe builder(MHI) has begun doing, but also in engineers having to check documents against the production process specifications.
Completing this task and getting production fully underway is the biggest challenge facing the program, says Takaseki. The company has hired engineers from abroad and borrowed others from friendly manufacturers, he says. He declines to name the companies that have come to its aid but says they have been keen to help the project out of its troubles, which he attributes simply to inexperience.
Another factor may have been in internal communication. Mitsubishi Aircraft has now set up a project management office to promote communication and cooperation among the various engineering divisions. Industry sources say that the Japanese company's Chinese rival, Comac, is suffering from stove-piped organization in which teams are reluctant to work together and tend to push decisions up the command chain.
When programs are delayed, there is usually more than one reason. In the case of the MRJ, the project team fell behind in detailed airframe design, says Takaseki, although that work was completed by the time the delay was announced. From here on, the company expects only normal refinement of the design as it builds and tests the initial units. The first flight is due in the last quarter of 2013.
SkyWest's announcement has also helped drum up interest from other carriers, including North American mainline airlines, he says. While manufacturers commonly play up their chances of imminent sales, the studies of a rate increase suggest that the company is genuinely concerned it might have more demand than it can feed.
The company would like to shorten the delay but Takaseki does not sound optimistic when he stresses that the priority is on protecting the new schedule.
A longer development program means paying engineers for longer, and in this case pricey foreign engineers flown in to help sort out the problems are in the mix. But the company says it is still aiming at completing MRJ development within the original budget of ¥180 billion ($2.3 billion).
Mitsubishi Aircraft is not taking advantage of the delay to improve the specification of the aircraft. Engine supplier Pratt & Whitney has, however, rescheduled development of the aircraft's PW1200G geared turbofan to make best use of the delay. Originally running in parallel with the similar engine for the, the PW1200G is now following that larger turbofan, benefiting from its testing and allowing Pratt to spread out its engineers, says marketing director Jim Speich. Some can now work successively on the two engines, rather than side-by-side with colleagues.
While Mitsubishi Aircraft must consider the potential of every supplier to increase its production rate, Speich says Pratt, at least, would have no trouble delivering engines faster.