(Nikkei: February 23, 2016 – p.2)
By Yoshifumi Kamisaka
The Mitsubishi Aircraft Corporation, a subsidiary of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, is developing the domestic jetliner Mitsubishi Regional Jet (MRJ). The corporation is experiencing birth pangs. Following the successful first test flight, the company received on Feb. 16 an order from an American leasing company, the seventh company to place an order with Mitsubishi for the MRJ. Mitsubishi, however, had to postpone delivery of the airplane, the fourth postponement, because the safety verification for obtaining the type certification from the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism is taking longer than originally projected. Mitsubishi seems puzzled, unable to fully learn the development process from U.S. firms with abundant experience.
“Why is the MRJ repeating taxing?” asked an official of U.S. Aerotech, a company entrusted by Boeing and others with airplane tests. The question surprised Mitsubishi officials visiting Seattle, the home of Boeing. Taxing is a ground test run. From the beginning of October, Mitsubishi conducted taxing tests as many as 13 times a month at 180 km to 200 km per hour, which was obviously “too many hours” in the eyes of the Aerotech official.
Regarding the first test flight of 1.5 hours, an official of a U.S. aviation company remarked: “The MRJ should have flown longer. Mitsubishi should use one flight more effectively to collect test data.” As a result, Mitsubishi officials realized that there were significant differences between the U.S. and Japan in the development process, especially in the speed of the process.
Development of the MRJ began in 2008. The first test flight was conducted in November last year, four years behind schedule. As it was the first successful test flight since that of the
“YS-11,” Japan’s first domestic passenger plane in 1962, officials involved with the MRJ’s development grew excited.
On Dec. 24, one and a half months after the first test flight, however, Mitsubishi announced that the delivery of the airplane to ANA Holdings would be delayed by about one year. “The airplane requires further improvements in the flight control system and airframe strength,” explained Vice President Nobuo Kishi of the Mitsubishi Aircraft Corporation, the chief engineer for the MRJ’s development.
The MRJ’s first test was rescheduled five times and the delivery four times. Mitsubishi admitted that the delays were due to lack of experience and knowledge. In order to obtain the type certification needed for commercial flight, the company must satisfy a massive amount of attestation items to prove the airframe safety.
This is the first development of a passenger plane by a Japanese company in a half century. So how could Mitsubishi have aviation authorities approve the results of tests on airframe strength and performance? “Although Mitsubishi’s defense division experienced with fighter development participates in the MRJ development,” said an official of the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, “the division has been unable to take advantage of its skills and knowledge on account of differences between passenger planes and fighters.”
“We want to move forward with a prompt assessment and decision; however, that is not happening,” said Mitsubishi Aircraft Corporation President Hiromichi Morimoto. The president’s remarks are similar to the view of the Aerotech official who said, “Mitsubishi is spending too many hours on tests.”
Whenever Mitsubishi finds a defect with the MRJ during the developmental process, the company goes back to the beginning to make repairs and modifications. Such a process is plausible, because unlike a half century ago, the role of software has increased and the airframe structure has become more complicated. But a Boeing official has a different view. “If each time a problem is found, everything is checked, development does not move forward,” said the official. “Fixing and modifying multiple defects together at certain point is a common developmental method.” A Mitsubishi official is concerned that President Morimoto frequently has to report to the main office of the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in Tokyo from Toyoyama, Aichi Prefecture, the location of Mitsubishi Aircraft Corporation’s main office. “Why do you have to use so many American engineers?” asked a senior official of the Tokyo main office. “Proceed with greater caution.” Morimoto now has to frequently ask for approval from higher authorities and consult with the main office about organizational decisions.
In April last year, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries replaced Teruaki Kawai, then the president of the Mitsubishi Aircraft Corporation, with Morimoto. In this way, the parent company tried to become more involved with the subsidiary, because it was concerned that the project is proceeding with difficulty, which will delay monetizing the MRJ. But the parent company’s involvement has not necessarily expedited the process.
One of advantages of the MRJ is that the jetliner is the first equipped with a state-of-the-art fuel-efficient engine developed by U.S.’s Pratt & Whitney. Embraer (a Brazilian company), a rival of Pratt & Whitney, however, will start delivering the top-of-the-line airplane equipped with the same type engine to its customers beginning in 2018. Further delay in the MRJ’s development will lead to fewer business opportunities.
A passenger plane is a large complex system, comprising one million parts, 30 times more than an automobile. Manufacturing an airplane certainly involves painstaking and meticulous methods, which may be unique to Mitsubishi Heavy Industries’ and described as the Mitsubishi or Japanese way. On the other hand, if the aircraft company persists in such a Japanese business model and repeatedly fails to meet deadlines for delivery, it might lose the trust of its customers. “If we proceeded with the project in the American way, the development would proceed faster,” said Morimoto. “But because we are a newcomer to this field, we need to proceed in a steady and safe manner.” Morimoto’s remarks suggest his anguish. (Slightly Abridged)