Rising sun’s rising star

  • 20-Sep-2013 01:45 EDT

Japan is pinning its aerospace export breakthrough on its Mitsubishi MRJ jetliner, but it is up against tough competition from established regional supplier, Embraer.

Japan’s status as the leading Asian economic driver may have been overshadowed in recent times by China, but it has been the major regional aerospace manufacturer for decades, producing license-built U.S. aircraft, but also contributing major structural components in partnership with others on global programs. It has also produced its own military aircraft designs for the Japanese Forces, though the country’s post-1945 constitutional laws prevent the export of military equipment, other than for use in humanitarian tasks.

Following the recent election of a more nationalist-inclined government in Japan, it is thought likely that policy may change, allowing the country’s aerospace industry to become more competitive across a broader range of aviation products, military as well as civil.

However, for the moment the main national focus for aerospace expansion is arriving in the shape of the Mitsubishi MRJ, a regional jetliner offering 70-90 seats, with the possibility of a 100-seat version following. This is the country’s first medium-size civil program since the YS-11 turboprop airliner of the 1960s.

Mitsubishi has long been an important manufacturing partner on Boeing commercial airplanes, which has grown over the years from producing around 15% of the structure on the 767 to nearly 30% on the 787. The company’s experience in producing large structural components from composite materials led it toward making its own regional jet design a largely composite aircraft. This, it was claimed, together with the use of the Pratt & Whitney PW1200G geared turbo fan (GTF) and advanced aerodynamics, would give customers the lightest and most efficient regional jet in the market.

That was back in 2007, and six years on the program has lost much momentum with several major changes in design and specification. Out has gone the all-composite fuselage and wings, to be replaced by an aluminum structure, with composite fairings, spoilers, control surfaces, and tail units. The composite contribution is now down to around 12% of the total aircraft weight.

As Mitsubishi is the launch customer for the new GTF engine, it cannot avoid having to bear the introductory challenges of integrating an all-new engine on an all-new airframe. It undoubtedly underestimated the scale of the challenge, as the first flight was scheduled for 2011, but is now expected to take place before the end of 2013.

Many expect a further slippage, but launch customer All Nippon Airways is due to receive its first aircraft in 2015, so the flight test schedule, involving five flying aircraft and two ground test specimens, will have to go very smoothly to keep to the twice revised target certification date.

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