Opinion: Can Comac’s C919 Ever Reach Full-Rate Production?

Comac’s C919
Credit: AFP/Getty Images

All aircraft development programs are difficult to complete, experiencing setbacks and design flaws and missing certification deadlines. Entry into service and the transition into low-rate production also present challenges. The Commercial Aircraft Corp. of China’s (Comac) C919 narrowbody development program is no exception.

Comac announced the C919 program and started developing the first prototype in 2011. In late 2015, the first aircraft was completed, and by mid-2017 the second was built. Comac has built six flight-test aircraft ahead of the low-rate production phase-—the start of which might be announced this year around the Zhuhai Airshow. The company lists 815 orders and intends to produce and deliver 150 aircraft per year. As a point of comparison, it took veteran aircraft-maker Boeing, with many times the experience of Comac, nine years from entry into service of its 787 widebody to reach full-rate annual production of 158 787s in 2019.

Ever since Comac launched development of the C919 a decade ago, there has been much focus on whether it will be sold outside China. But two other key questions should also be asked: Can Comac build the C919 in large quantities, and how long will it take to reach full-rate production? 

The C919 will soon have a manufacturing process review as a part of the product life-cycle management process. The review might reveal initial C919 program challenges of production tooling, configuration control and supply chain issues. After flight testing and certification by the Civil Aviation Administration of China, the next step will be entry into service and low-rate production readiness. 

Production tooling will be required for multiple stations within the factory to support a moving production line. The current C919s likely were built in a development method that required a stationary location in the factory. To achieve future higher rates, either multiple factory lines or a 3-4-step moving production line will be needed. Reduced production cycle times are crucial to achieving an increased build rate. Tooling will have to be designed, procured and installed into production positions.


What is more, systems to manage the production configuration and change control must be established. Comac will need robust configuration management and production planning systems to manage the production line. Quality escapes from the supply chain will have to be tracked, managed and mitigated. Manufacturability and design defects will likely emerge and affect production. Aircraft production entails a complex bill of materials, and long lead times from suppliers and manufacturing will require extensive Comac planning and alignment to ensure all parts are available at the build stations with the right configuration. Robust and mature systems are necessary to control configuration management.

Lastly, the external and Comac supply chains will provide significant challenges for C919 initial production. The C919 involves 82 major suppliers, with a general breakdown of 60% in the U.S., 30% European and 10% joint ventures of domestic Chinese and foreign suppliers. Location of suppliers is pivotal, as 90% of C919 components are imported and may hinder the initial low-rate production ramp-up.

During initial development and certification, Comac simply procured components. Contracts for production quantities with existing suppliers of many of those parts will need to be renegotiated. Export compliance issues for the roughly 60% of parts coming from U.S.-based suppliers will be challenging due to U.S. government regulations—and this tighter regime did not exist when even the prototype C919s were put together. These potential supply chain issues could cause significant delays for production if appropriate plans, inventory and lead time are not accounted for in the production process.

All of this is to say that while it likely will be just a matter of time before the C919 enters low-rate production, there are many run-of-the-mill production hurdles and unique foreign trade challenges. Comac does not yet have the experience of Boeing or Airbus to achieve the desired rates of 150 aircraft per year. But with good production planning, Comac could accelerate the production learning curve—and surprise the industry. 

Alex Krutz is the managing director at Patriot Industrial Partners, an aerospace and defense advisory firm that focuses on manufacturing strategy and supply chain optimization.

The views expressed are not necessarily those of Aviation Week.


Similar questions apply for the MS-21 but at least the Russians do have experience of series production.
We gave the Chinese the expertise to build this aircraft and work up production rates to levels that will support the aircraft investment. China does not need but would like worldwide distribution. The domestic market is large enough to justify both the investment and the prospects for other aircraft development that will chop 25% off the price of aircraft that compete with Western designed and built aircraft in their own market. I wouldn't count out Comac quite yet. With no investment in the technology to create, design and build it, the aircraft will be a bargain for a long time to come. The commercial and military aviation industry has only itself to blame for the monster that is coming to eat its lunch.
Conspicuous by its absence is any mention of certification by FAA or the EU authorities. Doesn't that lack of certification by those agencies severely limit the market for this airplane?