What a difference two years can make in the aero engine business. As the Franco-U.S. engine maker approached the 2011 Paris air show, the chill wind of uncertainty was blowing through CFM's traditional market base with Pratt & Whitney's PW1100G geared turbofan taking the lead in engine selections for the newly launched Airbus A320NEO.
Now, as the days count down to this year's show, the ambiguity has vanished. CFM and Pratt have established a more collegial status quo over the new engine option (NEO) market, and CFM's Leap engine is the sole source on the firmly launched Boeing 737 MAX and Comac C919. “At [Le Bourget] we are expecting to show the industry, and of course the public, that we are back to a normal course of business,” says CFM President/CEO Jean-Paul Ebanga.
“Two years ago the Paris air show took place just after the launch of the Airbus A320NEO, and there was a frenetic [guessing game] regarding which engine supplier would be the winner and why CFM was still behind in terms of orders (compared with the PW1100G). All these were good questions at the time, and the show helped the whole industry see that CFM was still CFM, and that we were there for the long haul. Now, as this year's show approaches, we see that everything we predicted two years ago is happening. The market is strong, we have three new aircraft programs—the A320NEO/737 MAX and Comac C919—with significant sales, and we are still about three years away from entry-into-service. Within this context, CFM is doing well and the numbers speak for themselves. Two years ago we were telling the industry not to panic. We told them 'we know the market and we know what we are doing,' and two years later the market is where it should be.”
Leading up to the Le Bourget event this year, CFM has more than 29,400 total orders for the CFM56 and last month marked the delivery of the 25,000th engine. With production of current-generation A320 and 737 models continuing to accelerate to record levels in the years running up to the transition to the NEO and MAX, CFM is also in the challenging position of readying the new Leap for production at the same high rate virtually from the get-go. Between the NEO, MAX and C919, the Leap family has attracted firm orders, spares and commitments for 4,581 units.
The company is now “shifting from definition of the product to focusing on execution,” says Ebanga who took the helm at CFM in 2011. “Last year we had a design freeze of the -1A/C [for NEO and C919], and we went through detailed design and production of the first parts for the first engine to test. We reached the design-freeze milestone for the -1B [MAX] engine on April 30, and in mid-May held our aircraft-level design freeze meeting with Boeing. Frankly from now to the end of the year it is all about execution in design, the start of production, making the first engine and the test campaign.”
Does CFM's president lose sleep over what could go wrong at the thought of this unprecedented transition while in the midst of record production rates? “Not really,” says Ebanga who believes implicitly in the rigor of his company's development and production plan. “When you look at the yearly production rate, we are clearly at the peak. We have never produced this level per year and, as we go into the 2017-20 period, we will transition between the two lines and go from the CFM56 to the Leap.
This is a significant challenge and it is the reason we are working flat out to be ready for it. But then who is better equipped to do this? I do not think anybody is. The experience of this organization is based on the people. You can't buy that experience, you have to build it. Look at the what happened when the U.S. car companies in Detroit sent teams to Japan to learn all the tricks of the Toyota production system. Although they learned all about the processes, it took 10 years to be able to produce at the same level of quality.”