日本志在扩大飞机制造能力 (Japan Growing Aircraft-Making Capabilities)
The Japanese government is promoting technological cooperation between local industry and Boeing in aircraft electrification and high-rate composites manufacturing, aiming at expanding the country’s traditionally limited roles in aircraft manufacturing.
Noting projects in which Boeing has taken an early interest, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry is helping to fund two proposals in the application of electric technology, with actuation rather than propulsion the obvious near-term opportunity.
Boeing and Japanese companies are exploring possibilities under an agreement between the U.S. manufacturer and the ministry signed in January. The ministry is also working with Airbus in looking for ways in which Japan’s technologies can be used to deepen its involvement in making aircraft.
Japanese industry has for decades had a strong presence in making aircraft structures and engine parts, noted the director of the ministry’s aerospace and defense industry division, Hiroyuki Hatada. But it has been largely unable to challenge foreign makers of onboard systems, companies that have entrenched positions and enjoy the low costs of high volumes.
Now prospective changes in aircraft technology are presenting Japan with opportunities to reach into areas of the industry where everyone is going back to square one or close to it. If a new technology largely displaces an old one and prompts major changes in manufacturing or system design, incumbent manufacturers lose many of their advantages.
Application of new electric technology to aircraft is seen as one such opportunity. It was listed alongside high-rate, low-cost composites manufacturing and automation in the agreement that the ministry signed with Boeing in January.
Japanese companies, including some that have had little to do with aircraft manufacturing, have technological offerings in batteries and high-density motors, Hatada said. Following meetings between companies and Boeing in July, the ministry has granted about ¥700 million ($6.4 million) for research and development in electrification.
In one such project, GS Yuasa will work on aeronautical applications of its battery technology. Another, by a consortium of Kyushu University and the ministry’s own National Institute for Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST), will focus on superconductivity.
Other companies, such as Murata Manufacturing, Toshiba and Sekisui Chemical, have battery technology that could be applied to aircraft. For motors, one would be Tamagawa Seiki, Hatada said. Others are two partnerships: one of Sinfonia Technology and Nagoya University; and another of AIST, Fujikura, Fuji Electric and Toshiba Infrastructure.
The ministry is introducing Boeing to nonaerospace suppliers with promising technology and can grant government funding and subsidies. From the ministry’s point of view, Hatada said, Boeing helps when it shows an interest in a technology. By doing so, it indicates that a project has solid prospects, reassuring government officials as they consider how to allocate funds.
Electrification could extend to propulsion, though for commercial aircraft that prospect is obviously decades away. Application of better electric technology to actuation in aircraft systems is a nearer possibility, Hatada said.
Also close is the use of new techniques for making composites more quickly and more cheaply; low costs can follow from fast production rates. Toray, Kanazawa and Tohoku University are working on this, specifically in making parts that combine thermoplastic materials with traditional thermosets. (When heated, thermoplastics soften and thermosets harden.)
A third area of technology in the Boeing agreement is greater automation in aircraft manufacturing, with obvious value to increasing production rates. This is more an area for the ministry’s encouragement rather than financial support, said Hatada, since Japan already has well-established capabilities in robotics. So the issue is applying this know-how to making aircraft.
The ministry made a similar agreement on cooperation with Airbus in 2017 and with Safran at the Paris Air Show in June 2019, in both cases covering artificial intelligence, the internet of things, and aviation electrification. Work with Safran also focuses on engine technology, while composites work is to be done with Airbus.