On Oct. 30, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. announced that it would freeze the SpaceJet project, underway at subsidiary Mitsubishi Aircraft Corp. and aimed at developing the nation’s first homegrown passenger jet aircraft, citing the plunge in air travel caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
With the suspension, the budget for the project will be slashed to ¥20 billion for the three years from April 2021 — about one-twentieth of the ¥370 billion allocated to the project from fiscal 2018 to fiscal 2020, which ends in March next year.
“I offer my profound apologies (to our clients) that the development has been delayed,” said MHI President Seiji Izumisawa in an online news conference.
SpaceJet was launched in 2008 as the Mitsubishi Regional Jet (MRJ) project. Its first delivery, initially planned for 2013, has been delayed six times. So far, the project has received about ¥1 trillion in funding, including money from state coffers.
From discussions with insiders and sources that were previously involved in the project, it seems clear that the pandemic is simply the final nail in the coffin, putting an end to an endeavor that had already suffered a near terminal loss of momentum.
During development of the SpaceJet, Mitsubishi Aircraft, which is based in Toyoyama, Aichi Prefecture, made a number of miscalculations that caused a snowball effect. The sourcing of parts was one area in which this was particularly evident.
The firm “was overly confident” that it would be able to make all the components of the aircraft on its own, said a source who was involved in SpaceJet development.
After the firm announced the first delivery delay back in 2010, when it was struggling with development of the aircraft, a Boeing Co. executive suggested that Mitsubishi Aircraft use the cockpit from the Boeing 737, used for smaller passenger jets, for its regional passenger jet.
But Mitsubishi Aircraft executives turned the offer down, persevering with the idea of producing the whole plane by themselves.
With various instruments and communications devices installed in a cockpit, making one alone from scratch means developing and testing all of those devices as well.
In retrospect, fitting their jet with a cockpit made by a major aircraft manufacturer that was already in use around the world would have saved a large amount of time and money. It would have reduced training hours for pilots and maintenance crew, allowing them to become familiar with the controls more quickly.
Mitsubishi Aircraft’s overconfidence on sourcing parts by making them itself was not limited to cockpits.
An aircraft is usually made up of more than a million parts — considerably more than cars, which typically have about 30,000 — and the requirements for quality and precision, as well as compliance with safety standards, are significantly higher as well.
Heavy industry manufacturers in Japan may have won the confidence of overseas aircraft producers based on their technology and skill for building structural aircraft parts, such as the main wing and body. But when it comes to electronic devices, Japanese companies lag far behind manufacturers overseas. Some industry insiders describe device-makers here as so behind they “can’t even catch a glimpse” of the major overseas manufacturers that are ahead in the race.
For companies that supply many parts to “major league” companies like Boeing and Airbus SE, newcomer Mitsubishi Aircraft is still a “minor league” competitor.
“Having seen Boeing procure parts from those suppliers, Mitsubishi Aircraft thought they could do the same,” said an industry insider. “But suppliers weren’t interested.”
With the prospects for the SpaceJet unclear and only a relatively small number of them planned to be made, it was difficult to persuade big-name suppliers to produce high quality parts and ship them as scheduled.
In the end, Mitsubishi Aircraft struggled to create its own supply chain. Another aircraft industry insider revealed that Mitsubishi Aircraft had to purchase one part for twice the price Boeing had paid to acquire the part for its 737 aircraft, confirming that the company had found it difficult to procure high quality parts for the SpaceJet at a reasonable price.
The struggle to source parts also had a ripple effect when Mitsubishi Aircraft went through the government’s type certificate (TC) testing, which is mandatory for a plane to be put into commercial use.
In TC tests, aircraft parts manufacturers need to prove that each and every part is precise and safe based on testing data. Even though SpaceJet had touted itself as the nation’s first homegrown passenger jet aircraft, about 70% of the parts ended up being made by non-Japanese companies.
This meant that Mitsubishi Aircraft officials, at times, needed to ask major suppliers for new testing data, which took more time than expected.
The time and money required to make the aircraft continued to balloon, prompting Mitsubishi Aircraft to make drastic changes to its initial plan.
Misinterpreting test criteria
Another miscalculation was with the TC tests themselves.
In order to obtain type certification, an aircraft manufacturer needs to check off a list of about 400 items, including whether the aircraft will be able to fly even if one of the engines is suspended. The aircraft manufacturer also needs to go through tests over and over again under various weather conditions, such as in freezing temperatures or extreme heat.
Mitsubishi Aircraft went through about 3,900 hours of test flights in the United States, using four test planes. But even that duration of testing was not sufficient to pass the requirements of Japanese authorities for the aircraft to be certified as adequately safe to carry passengers.
One of the reasons Mitsubishi Aircraft struggled to clear the tests was because it had misinterpreted the criteria, according to a Mitsubishi Aircraft worker.
“In some areas, we were over the top on safety measures, and in some areas — considered key under international standards — we kept them at a certain level without clear reasoning. That was the reason we didn’t pass,” the official recalled.
A misinterpretation on electric wiring that led to the company delaying delivery for the fifth time, in January 2017, was typical on the project.
In computer-controlled aircraft, electric wiring is crucial. Therefore, two sets of wiring are necessary — primary and secondary — so that the aircraft can continue to fly even if there is a fault in the primary wiring system.
“Many transportation vehicles stop when there’s an emergency but aircraft need to continue operating so they won’t crash,” a senior industry ministry official explained.
But the SpaceJet initially had a key system, along with the electric wiring, all concentrated in one part of the aircraft. After U.S. authorities pointed out the issue to Japan’s Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry, the ministry instructed Mitsubishi Aircraft to split the system, and the manufacturer was forced to rework more than 23,000 wiring components.
Wiring is installed throughout an aircraft, like blood vessels, and revising it is “tantamount to making the aircraft from scratch,” said a former executive at Mitsubishi Aircraft, adding that it should have consulted with experienced foreign engineers much earlier.
The manufacturer also lacked awareness of what is called a process guarantee system, which is aimed at ensuring a product’s quality by showing the process through which it was designed — a system that has been mandatory in the aircraft industry in recent years.
In Western countries, various design processes are documented so that engineers can divide their workload. According to sources, Mitsubishi Aircraft didn’t have internal rules for documentation, resulting in each engineer adopting a different approach in areas as electric wiring development. In the end, they didn’t have the necessary documentation to guarantee the quality of their manufacturing process.
One of the reasons it is hard to get type certification is because methods to meet the safety standard are not specified, which allows aircraft manufacturers flexibility when developing designs.
Boeing and Airbus both have extensive experience in developing and using processes for design and manufacture that ensure they can meet the standard. But since Mitsubishi Aircraft tasked Japanese engineers almost exclusively to design its aircraft up to a certain point, they lacked the techniques to prove that the aircraft was indeed safe.
In the end, Mitsubishi Aircraft was forced to create a new blueprint for a test aircraft, revising the original document in more than 900 places. It was also faced with inconsistencies in the quality of the wiring and mistakes in the design drawings, which caused the company to delay delivery for a sixth time.
This section features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original articles were published Oct. 27, 29 and 31.
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