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Japan trio to develop small-jet engines with Pratt & Whitney

Mitsubishi Heavy, partners see demand for better fuel efficiency

Europe's Airbus makes a bold promise of "unbeatable fuel efficiency."

LE BOURGET, France -- U.S. aerospace company Pratt & Whitney and a team of Japanese manufacturers including Mitsubishi Heavy Industries have agreed to develop next-generation engines for small commercial aircraft, aiming to install them in the increasingly popular planes by the 2030s.

The American engine maker inked a memorandum of understanding with Japanese Aero Engines, a longstanding consortium of Japanese manufacturers. Mitsubishi Heavy, IHI and Kawasaki Heavy Industries will participate in this project on the Japanese side.

Heavy investment

The partners will spend more than 100 billion yen ($898 million) to create small-aircraft engines that improve fuel consumption by around 10%, under the likely assumption that fuel efficiency and lower greenhouse gas emissions will be key selling points for future planes.

The Japanese trio boasts traditional strengths in jet engine parts such as low-pressure turbines and combustors, as well as superior technology for processing carbon fiber reinforced plastics and ceramic matrix composites used to make lightweight components. These weight-reduction technologies will be vital in the new engines. The group will experiment starting in the design phase with methods such as 3-D printing to help control production costs.

Mitsubishi Heavy, IHI and Kawasaki Heavy will form a risk and revenue sharing partnership for the project. The specific duties and capital contribution of each partner have yet to be decided. Though the group will incur heavy development costs, the maintenance fees and sale of replacement parts will help the companies recoup their investments once the engines are in service.

Talk at the air show

Fuel efficiency and weight reduction are major topics at this year's International Paris Air Show here. The weeklong aviation exhibition runs through Sunday, opening to the public Friday after four days dedicated to trade professionals -- traditionally a time for deal-making between airlines and manufacturers.

Fabrice Bregier, chief operating officer of Airbus, called this year's show a fruitful one for the manufacturer. The European company roped in a number of orders for its aircraft, including a last-minute commitment from Malaysian budget airline AirAsia, he said. Airbus boasted of its "unbeatable fuel efficiency" at the show, slapping the slogan on the side of a jetliner.

An unparalleled 40,000 new aircraft will be needed over the next 20 years through 2036, according to market forecasts from Airbus and American rival Boeing. And if trends hold, many of these likely will be on the smaller side: Airbus has received orders for some 13,000 of its A320 series aircraft over the line's lifetime and continues to rake in more, while the A380 superjumbo has not attracted any orders lately.

Chinese manufacturers, meanwhile, pose a challenge to these European and American heavyweights that grows with each passing day. Airbus, Boeing and their peers have opened finishing facilities in the massive Asian market. But with native makers set to join the aircraft development race, increased competition could be inevitable.

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