July 15, 2013
In many ways, SACC typifies the Chinese civil aircraft industry. The company, the commercial spin-off of Avic's Shenyang Aircraft Corp., is expected to live by its wits, winning commercial contracts to meet the Chinese government edict that state enterprises make profits. But, as is true for the rest of the industry, SACC also has access to national aircraft programs designed to help it develop.
Like the industry in general, SACC's capabilities are rising with each program. The company has helped develop the parts it is making for the Bombardier CSeries and Comac C919. Following the policy of Avic's head office, SACC is aiming at integrating itself with the global industry, especially by focusing on specialities in which it believes it can excel. In common with its Avic siblings, it is battling rapid wage rises, doing its best to improve management and, as far as it can justify, increase automation.
With the separation of commercial and military sides of the industry, SACC is moving out of its parent's home. While Shenyang Aircraft makes fighters at its site in inner Shenyang, SACC has built a factory on the edge of the city's airport. The head office is still in town but will move to the new site. As part of the separation, SACC has been adopted by another relative, administratively sliding over to Avic Aircraft, the Avic group's large-airplane specialist, which is centered on Xian Aircraft.
SACC President Yang Lei sees the new factory as necessary, because defense and civil aircraft manufacturing do not mix well. “Civil aircraft production has its own special features, such as maintaining stable production rates, working with the rest of the world and managing an industrial chain,” he says.
SACC's successively deeper involvement in civil manufacturing—moving from small structures to large ones, and from following blueprints to helping to develop the parts—has naturally heightened its technical capabilities. But, asked what it has gained most from recent contracts, Yang says “we have learned how to cooperate and communicate with Western aerospace professionals.” SACC has come to understand the culture and interaction methods of such companies as suppliers to the C919, he adds. The idea of communication as a top skill may seem strange, especially when set against the technological complexities of aircraft manufacturing, but history has plenty of examples of programs suffering when two sides are not in sync. In particular, bringing together workers from disparate national and industrial cultures can raise huge challenges. For example, Chinese companies that have run into trouble in making parts, even major assemblies, have sometimes been slow to tell their customer, which has not realized how closely it needed to be involved.
The new SACC plant opened in 2009 and is now fully operational, meeting required volumes. Considerable investment was evident on a recent visit. Equipment includes three high-grade machining centers, a rubber-block press for forming sheet metal, a skin stretcher, a numerically controlled router and a deburring machine. The metal-centric company has also installed its first autoclave as a first step toward carbon-fiber reinforced plastic.
SACC has introduced automatic drilling and riveting to alleviate labor costs and to increase productivity. But it is clear that, unlike some parts of the Chinese industry, SACC is limited to buying equipment for profit; more automatic drillers and riveters will be bought only as production warrants.