Kawasaki Heavy Industries today makes huge 787 carbon-fiber composite fuselage barrels and large metal panels for most of the 777 fuselage. Akihiro Shiraishi, director of production for Kawasaki’s aerospace division, wants to go beyond being a top-tier Boeing supplier.
“We would like to become Super Tier 1,” said Shiraishi. Whatever Boeing does next, “In some way or other, we’d like it to bring us one step closer to being a builder of complete aircraft.”
How Boeing divides up both the manufacturing work and the technological expertise on any future airplane program is crucial not only to Japan — it has profound implications for the U.S. and this region, which has learned that new Boeing planes bring opportunities but also risks.
Faced with the anti-globalization impulses of President Donald Trump, the Japanese manufacturers say they’ll even contemplate placing some work in the U.S.
Yet despite Boeing’s long-standing collaboration with Japan Inc., the Heavies are struggling to glean any details about how they might fit into its plans for what’s being called the 797.
That doesn’t dent Shiraishi’s faith in how much further his company and Japan can reach in the aerospace business.
Though Kawasaki is perhaps best known for its motorcycles, it’s an industrial goliath that makes ships, trains, jet engines and precision machinery. Its aerospace division brought in $2.9 billion in sales last year, a fifth of its business and slightly more than the motorcycles.
In military aviation, Kawasaki developed and built Japan’s P-1 maritime patrol aircraft as well as its C-2 military-transport jet.
“We already have the technology to design and manufacture a whole aircraft, based on our experience with the Defense Ministry of Japan,” Shiraishi said.
A visit to Japan in late March highlighted the highflying ambition of the country’s advanced aerospace-manufacturing sector.
Those ambitions are undiminished by the big financial hit the Japanese suppliers took from Boeing’s much-delayed 787 Dreamliner jet, or the recent delays in Japan’s own Mitsubishi Regional Jet program.
The major 787 partners are still waiting to turn a profit on the advanced Boeing jet and are still haggling with Boeing on the pricing of their parts for the larger Dreamliner models, the 787-9 and -10.
Right now, Japanese industrial leaders have new concerns about the next step toward their vision of an expanded aerospace future.
One is Boeing’s caginess as it contemplates its next all-new airplane after the 777X, an airplane larger than a 737 and smaller than a 787, increasingly referred to as the 797.
A senior executive familiar with the thinking of Boeing’s Japanese partners said they worry industrial rivals in other countries will match their capabilities unless they move beyond making parts, however large and complex.
“On the 777 or 777X, we have not participated in any conceptual design,” said the executive, who asked not to be identified because he also works closely with the U.S. jet maker. “On the 797, we hope we can be involved at a much earlier phase.”
The Japanese suppliers have pressed Boeing without success for information and early involvement with an eye to enlarging their role, he said.
“The concern of Japanese industry is that Boeing is not explaining to us the future plan,” he said. “We cannot get good answers.”
A lean machine
The Japanese port city of Nagoya, some 160 miles southwest of Tokyo, is a showcase of Japan’s sophisticated manufacturing prowess and the lean efficiency of its industrial operations.
Inside Kawasaki’s Dai-Ichi (or No. 1) aircraft manufacturing complex there, a Boeing 787-10 Dreamliner carbon-fiber composite fuselage barrel — 20 feet in diameter and 43 feet long — is an arresting sight.
These huge cylindrical parts, spun out of carbon tape elsewhere in the factory, are baked to hardness inside a giant autoclave, a pressure oven 98 feet long and 29 feet in diameter, which Kawasaki designed and built itself.
From there, they go to an inspection station. Robotic sensors, one inside and one outside, move over every inch of a 787 barrel. A jet of water sprays precisely onto a small area of the carbon-fiber skin as the sensors use ultrasonic waves to detect flaws in the material.
The skin can be locally repaired if needed. As the inspection proceeds, three workers seated at computers check the data. If there are no flaws, it’s time to assemble the structure.
At a series of 10 assembly stations, workers install encircling frames to strengthen the fuselage skin then add in the passenger cabin and cargo floors, as well as all the brackets, ducts, tubes and insulation needed. The fuselage section will arrive at Boeing’s 787 final assembly plants in Everett or North Charleston, South Carolina, fully stuffed and ready for joining.
At the initial stations, mechanics working inside the barrel complete one section of the circumference, then step out so the holding fixture can rotate the barrel 20 degrees.
The rotation allows the mechanics to easily work on the next section without awkwardly reaching up or down.
The second station is the only fully automated cell, featuring a computer-controlled riveter made by Mukilteo-based engineering firm Electroimpact. On the smallest 787, the machine’s synchronized inner and outer parts install a total of 6,000 rivets, one every 25 seconds.
The work at the other nine manual assembly stations is accomplished with small teams of mechanics. The entire Dai-Ichi plant, which also makes 777 fuselage panels, requires just 700 workers.
The total direct Kawasaki aerospace workforce is just under 4,000 people. (Boeing’s Everett plant, where the 787 and 777 jets are assembled, alone employs about 35,000 people.)
In March, about 30 Dreamliner fuselage barrels were in process in the production facility. Six were tightly wrapped in black plastic, ready to ship out.
From a dock right outside the plant, a barge ferries the barrels to nearby Chubu Centrair airport so a Boeing Dreamlifter cargo jet can transport them to the U.S.
Working on 777X
Preparing for the introduction of Boeing’s 777X, Kawasaki is investing several hundred million dollars, as are the other Japanese Heavies.
Construction crews were busy in March installing new manufacturing equipment — including new Kawasaki-designed robots capable of holding small brackets delicately in place while a synchronized riveter fastens them to the structure.
Kawasaki’s piece of the 777 airframe, the large curved aluminum panels for the forward and center fuselage sections, doesn’t change for the 777X. But Boeing is assembling the 777X fuselage with robots in Everett, so the incoming panels need to be made to higher tolerances.
Kawasaki’s costly upgrade will drastically revamp production to make the parts more precise and the process more automated.
Leading a tour of his new facility, director of production Shiraishi said everything will be ready to start production by September.
On the second floor, the first 777X skin panels had arrived from Kawasaki’s Gifu fabrication plant and were suspended from racks. Below on the first floor, the machines for assembling them were taking shape.
An Electroimpact riveter will splice the Gifu skin panels together into four highly curved “super-panels.” In a final assembly jig, another robot will fasten the frames to the skin panels. Yet another robot will drill extra-large holes in the side of body, where the 777X composite wings will be attached.
Just one or two shipsets of 777X fuselage panels will be produced this year, with a workforce of only about 20 people, Shiraishi said. He’s still working out how many people he’ll need when the 777X reaches seven airplanes per month sometime in the 2020s.
Kawasaki is eager to distinguish itself from Boeing’s other direct suppliers, Shiraishi said. One way to do so, assuming Boeing’s next all-new plane requires mass production of dozens of jets per month, would be use the excess manufacturing space Kawasaki has in the U.S., he said.
Kawasaki has already started such a pilot project on the 777X. This year, it begins assembling 777X cargo doors at its manufacturing facility in Lincoln, Nebraska, a plant established in 1981 that otherwise makes all-terrain vehicles, Jet Skis and train cars.
“Kawasaki has become a familiar name for the Nebraska community,” Shiraishi said. “About 2,000 employees work there and they are very well versed to the Kawasaki way of production.”
“So before Mr. Trump makes any requests, we already have made our contribution,” he joked.
“We wanted to find out what would be the benefit for us if we built in the United States,” Shiraishi added. “We thought more business opportunities could be captured if we operate in the U.S.”
Kawasaki, he noted, already has U.S. plants making gasoline engines and trains. (Half of New York City’s trains were made by Kawasaki.) “The third should be aircraft,” Shiraishi said.
Beyond Subaru automobiles
Another of the Japanese “Heavies,” Subaru, is also investing heavily in new automation for the 777X.
Formerly known as Fuji Heavy Industries, the company rebranded itself last month after its dominant automobile division. Only 5 percent of Subaru’s revenue comes from aerospace, versus 94 percent from automobiles.
Yet Subaru is a vital Boeing supplier. In the city of Handa, close to Nagoya, it makes the key structural boxes within the central fuselage that support the wings of the 777 and the 787. It will supply the same piece for the 777X.
“Next time, Boeing will not be able to make any big airplane without us,” joked Yasuhiro Hamanaka, vice president of production at Subaru’s aerospace division.
A team of Subaru designers went to Seattle and worked with Boeing engineers to design the 777X center wing box.
“We’d like to make the center wing box for the next-generation Boeing product, but not limited to the center wing box,” Hamanaka said. “We’d like to leverage our experience in composites on the 787, for wing parts, especially the horizontal tail and parts of the main wing.”
A join venture with Boeing?
Yet Boeing remains mum on how work on its next new airplane will be allotted and who might help build it.
Asked in an interview in Tokyo about the concerns of the Heavies that Boeing is not sharing its thinking on the potential 797, Brett Gerry, president of Boeing Japan, said it’s too early for that.
“This is a very sophisticated and advanced manufacturing culture and workforce,” Gerry said. “The technical excellence of the partnership has … led to the creation of tens of thousands of aerospace jobs in the U.S. and Japan.”
But as for future airplanes, he said, “We haven’t made any decisions.”
If and when Boeing does finally decide on its next move, Japan will have to compete fiercely for work, said aviation-industry analyst Richard Aboulafia.
“Everyone wants a piece of the 797,” he said.
Aboulafia said the next new jet now under consideration is a high-volume, twin-aisle airplane priced closer to a single-aisle jet. It will be, he predicted, “the most intensely cost-driven airplane” Boeing has ever produced.
Given the imperative for lower costs, it’s conceivable Boeing will again outsource the composite wing, as it did to Mitsubishi Heavy Industries on the 787.
As for the body of the plane, which will likely be metal, building those sections might come down to a competition between the Japanese Heavies and Spirit AeroSystems of Wichita, Kansas.
Yet a more radical outsourcing plan might also be possible, said Aboulafia, given the prospect of high rates of production: some kind of joint venture between Boeing and the Heavies, “a grand transoceanic partnership,” similar to the highly successful CFM joint venture between U.S. jet engine maker GE and its French counterpart Safran.
In such a scenario, he said Japanese-owned aircraft plants wouldn’t necessarily have to be in Japan.
Japanese industry already thinks globally, he said, and the Heavies could operate plants wherever it makes business sense, be that the U.S. or Southeast Asia.
A message to Boeing
Meanwhile, the third Heavy, Mitsubishi, has pushed ahead of the other Japanese partners in realizing the ambition to build its own new commercial airplane.
For Boeing, Mitsubishi makes the advanced carbon composite wings that provide the 787’s high performance in flight. It also supplies aft fuselage panels and other parts for the 777.
Multiple sources in Japan said Mitsubishi in 2013 offered to build the big composite wings of the 777X in the U.S., but was rebuffed by Boeing, which instead chose to build a new in-house wing facility in Everett.
Mitsubishi is also now flight testing in Washington state the 88-seat Mitsubishi Regional Jet or MRJ — the first commercial airplane in more than 40 years designed and built in Japan.
“Mitsubishi is in the process of challenging ourselves, of shifting from being a tier one supplier, where we only manufacture parts, to integrating the whole airplane with the MRJ,” said Yuichi Shinohara senior vice president at MHI Commercial Aerospace and CEO of Mitsubishi Aircraft, the division that makes the MRJ.
In January, the MRJ suffered a new two-year delay, the latest setback in a program that is proving, like the Boeing 787, much more expensive to develop than planned.
Yet Mitsubishi remains fully committed to continuing to fund the airplane.
“This business is very long term,” said Yugo Fukuhara, vice president of MRJ sales & marketing, in an interview in Tokyo. “We are not making just an aircraft. We are creating a new industry in Japan.”
Shinji Suzuki, a professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at the University of Tokyo, said, “It might be difficult to post a profit with the MRJ … But if it continues, it will grow as the root of the Japanese aerospace industry.”
“This is the message Japan wants to send Boeing: That we are developing the ability to integrate aircraft,” Suzuki added. “Japan needs to go into a new phase, where the Heavies can codevelop aircraft with Boeing.”
(Dominic Gates - The Seattle Times)