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Airbus wants to be adopted by a Japanese 'family'

Airbus A350

TOKYO -- Airbus wants a Japanese "family" of component suppliers and developers to help it make aircraft.

     The European producer of jetliners is making overtures to companies in Japan that have old ties with its U.S. rival, Boeing. It has proposed joint development plans and component procurement deals to Japanese makers of aircraft parts and materials.

     Boeing has spent years nurturing a huge "family" that includes Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and other Japanese companies. Airbus hopes to hatch a comparable group consisting of Sumitomo Precision Products and other companies.

They seem serious

More than 100 officials from Japanese and French aircraft-related companies gathered Dec. 19 at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry in Tokyo in a session arranged by the ministry and the French Civil Aviation Authority.

     Tokyo Aircraft Instrument, Sumitomo Precision and 10 other Japanese companies attended, as did five French businesses, including Airbus. Officials at the meetings exchanged opinions for five hours after presentations by the French. "They seem serious about doing more business with Japanese suppliers," said Hiroshi Miyazaki, director at Tamagawa Trading, the sales unit of Tamagawa Seiki, a maker of high-precision control equipment in Nagano Prefecture.

     Airbus Group CEO Tom Enders praised Japanese companies during a February visit to the country. "When it comes to carbon fiber, titanium and other technologies, Japanese engineering know-how is very high," he said. Enders was in Japan to officially inform partners that his company has changed its official name to Airbus Group from European Aeronautic Defence and Space. But he used the trip to work on getting together a Japanese family.

Left behind

Airbus was established by the French, German, British and Spanish aircraft industries, and thus accumulated technologies for production of airplane components.

     Rapid breakthroughs in aircraft technology, rising fuel costs and growing demand for energy-efficient airplanes have since changed the market. Carbon fiber, titanium and other lightweight materials are now common materials. This has made it difficult for Airbus to deliver what today's airlines demand.

     Airbus and Boeing dominate the global market for commercial airplanes. Still, the European company's share of the Japan market is 13%. Airbus supplies mainly its A380 large aircraft and A350 midsize aircraft to Japanese airlines in deals worth some 100 billion yen ($979 million) a year, a quarter to a fifth of Boeing's Japan sales.

     Airbus also lags behind Boeing in terms of Japan production. Although Airbus purchases engine parts from Kawasaki Heavy Industries, it does so primarily through Rolls-Royce of Britain. It now procures carbon fiber from Toray Industries and recently signed a deal to buy engine parts from Sumitomo Precision.

Getting closer

There are signs that ties between Airbus and Japanese parts makers are deepening. The industry ministry is encouraging Japanese companies to do business with Airbus, hoping to promote Japan's aerospace industry. In the fall, Japan Airlines placed an order for A350s. "The order has changed (JAL's) stance on Airbus," an official at the aircraft maker said.

     Boeing, which commands greater market share in Japan than in the U.S., is not sitting on its hands.

     A month before the meeting between Airbus and Japanese suppliers at the industry ministry, John Tracy, Boeing's chief technology officer, announced that his company and leading Japanese manufacturers had set up an organization so Boeing and its Japanese suppliers could work even more closely together.

     "I'm thrilled about this new partnership," Tracy said, flanked by executives of Mitsubishi Heavy, Toray, Kawasaki Heavy, DMG Mori Seiki and four other Japanese suppliers.

     The Collaborative Research Center for Manufacturing Innovation, or CMI, will develop new aircraft manufacturing methods. The aim is to reduce production costs by up to 50% and shorten aircraft delivery time by 20-50%.

     Airbus will have to overcome high hurdles to establish the kind of Japanese "family" Boeing has long had. In addition, the production of commercial airplanes is closely connected to national defense, and there are questions about whether the U.S.-Japan security alliance will get in Airbus' way.

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