July 06, 2013
I am sometimes amazed by all the optimism of the dozens of Western aerospace executives shuttling in and out of the Comac (Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China) headquarters in Shanghai. Most have not made a dime yet on the business, but they continue to send dozens of engineers to China, invest millions to form joint ventures with Chinese aerospace companies, and diligently educate the Chinese on the basics of commercial aircraft-building, hoping one day that these costly efforts will turn into big money. Unfortunately, I do not share the same sentiment.
I see little chance that Comac will get its mid-range commercial aircraft, the C919 , off the ground. My skepticism comes from Comac’s methods in designing and building the C919 . First, it is using engineers, mid-level managers and executives who have virtually no commercial aircraft experience. Second, it is outsourcing almost everything: parts, systems, subsystems and testing.
Comac’s engineers are very sharp. Some have aerospace experience building and designing jet fighters. Others have spent years in aerospace universities and government testing labs. I do not question their education, prowess or fortitude to want to make a commercial aircraft. They are very serious in their work and want to make their country proud. I do, however, question their experience in the designing, manufacturing and testing of commercial aircraft, a different animal than the fighter jet. They did not need to consider such issues as maintenance, repair and overhaul efficiencies, component and material costs, cargo and passenger loads and total cost of ownership. A whole new set of commercial-related parameters comes into play now that China wants to compete with Boeing and Airbus.
In addition, the task of properly certificating a secondary component supplier under FAA guidelines is unknown to Comac, and it has dozens of Chinese suppliers to audit. It just cannot be done in a timely manner, or at least by the new target date of 2015 for the maiden flight. Up to mid-2012, Comac engineers were still asking basic questions: Can you help us design a test protocol for this system? How do Boeing or Airbus do this, what documents do we need for the FAA to approve this system ? It was shocking since Comac was only two years away from the originally scheduled first flight in 2014.
What is more disturbing is that Comac engineers and managers are not interested in understanding the engineering issues and problems. Rather, they only want the answers. Because of pressure from the top, they will outsource the answers and solutions from Western companies and simply implement them without understanding the “whys.” Meeting deadlines has taken precedence over good, solid engineering work.
There is nothing wrong with outsourcing. Boeing has been at it for close to 100 years, during which the company has made and learned from mistakes. Comac, on the other hand, was founded in 2008 with new employees, new management and new facilities. They want to do in eight years what took Boeing a century. You cannot develop the talent, expertise , experience and knowledge base, and bring together hundreds of suppliers to make a commercial aircraft without the potential for major delays or even complete failure. Experience matters in the aerospace business and the core competencies must be built from within.
I am not a Comac-hater nor do I have any vendetta against China. My comments would apply to any new company declaring it was going to manufacture a 737-like aircraft from scratch in just under eight years. My aviation colleagues tell me I am wrong. The Chinese outsource all the time and can shrink decades of technological development into a few short years. After all, they bought, stole or borrowed (in the form of joint ventures) technologies to build high-speed rail trains, super computers, automobiles and telecommunications equipment. So why not commercial aircraft ?
I would agree if Comac were joining forces with Boeing or Airbus to make airplanes in China. In other industries, the Chinese learned first-hand from the actual OEMs: Volkswagen for automobiles, Cisco for telecommunications and Bombardier for high-speed rail. Through joint ventures they trained, learned and copied from the best. But Comac is not receiving the same treatment from Boeing or Airbus, and is on an island tinkering and thinking by itself.
China has come a long way in just 20 years. It is in the midst of an industrial revolution and has risen to become the second largest economy in the world. Within two decades it will be the largest. But given Comac ‘s lack of experience in commercial aircraft designing, manufacturing, outsourcing and certification along with unreasonable deadlines, and an antiquated Communist-style management, I don’t think I’ll live long enough to one day step onto a C919 at Beijing Capital International Airport on its way to Chengdu or Shanghai.