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Central Japan sets sights on becoming world aerospace hub

Mitsubishi Heavy Industries' Komaki Minami plant in Aichi Prefecture (Courtesy of Mitsubishi Aircraft)

TOKYO -- Central Japan, already a base for key players in the aviation industry, is to bolster aerospace-related manufacturing in a bid to become a major international aerospace hub, on par with Seattle, home to Boeing, and Toulouse where Airbus is based. 

     According to Japan Aircraft Development estimates, 36,770 commercial airplanes will be in service by 2033, nearly double the number in 2013. Over the next two decades, the total demand will likely be worth more than 300 trillion yen ($2.52 trillion) and the Chukyo industrial area, which centers on the city of Nagoya in Aichi Prefecture, wants a bigger slice of that pie.

     In December, Kiyonori Inaba, executive vice president of industrial robot maker Fanuc, visited Mitsubishi Heavy Industries' Oye plant in Nagoya. The plant manufactures Boeing's fuselage parts. Fanuc has the biggest share of the global industrial robot market. "We would very much like to work with you," Fumiaki Tominaga, vice president of Mitsubishi Heavy's Commercial Aviation & Transportation Systems, told the robot maker.

     Inaba also visited Mitsubishi Heavy's Komaki Minami plant, which has been working to develop a passenger jet, the Mitsubishi Regional Jet (MRJ). The two companies have started to explore ways to produce airplane parts by using industrial robots. Using robots would help reduce manpower, ensure quality and cut the number of tools needed. Fanuc's leading-edge robot control technology has changed manufacturing processes mainly in the auto industry, but this will be its first foray into the aerospace sector.

     The MRJ's first flight test is scheduled for May, with mass-production due to start in 2016. To have a competitive edge over its main rival Embraer from Brazil, Mitsubishi Aircraft, a Mitsubishi Heavy subsidiary and the developer of MRJ, needs to be innovative in terms of quality, cost and delivery time. Collaboration between Fanuc and Mitsubishi Heavy is the first step toward achieving that goal.

     Japan's aerospace industry's production value is estimated at about 1.49 trillion yen a year. The Chukyo industrial area -- aerospace manufacturing bases for Mitsubishi Heavy and Kawasaki Heavy Industries -- generates half this. The region, including Aichi and Gifu Prefectural governments, aims to generate 900 billion yen in production value by 2020.

From cotton to aircraft

Originally, the region was a major cotton and textile business center. In the Meiji era (1868-1912), Sakichi Toyoda, the founder of today's Toyota Group, invented textile machines, which helped foster the light manufacturing industry there. Before World War II, the region served as a mass-production base for Japan's Zero fighter planes and other fighters. In the postwar period, manufacturers made U.S. military aircraft under license, acquiring know-how on aircraft design and quality control.

     In Japan's high growth era from the mid-1950s to the early-1970s, petrochemical complexes popped up along the Yokkaichi City coast, Mie Prefecture, transforming the region into a heavy chemical industry area. Toyota Motor and its numerous suppliers have also given the region's industrial competitiveness a huge boost. The region is now Japan's biggest industrial area by product shipment value.

     Japan's first passenger airplane YS11 was also manufactured in this region. Since 1980, manufacturers in the Chukyo industrial area have produced fuselage and other main frame parts for Boeing's mid- to large airplanes, such as the 767. George Maffeo, president of Boeing Japan, says the area is one of the most important partners for Boeing.

     Collaboration is also growing among aerospace parts suppliers.

     Tenryu Aero Component, an aircraft parts maker based in Gifu Prefecture, supplies parts to Kawasaki Heavy's Gifu Works, which manufactures helicopters, the Defense Ministry's patrol planes and other aircraft. Tenryu has a large surface treatment facility for anticorrosive aluminum alloy parts and materials. This year, Tenryu and Kawasaki Heavy will work to make sure Gifu Works' 11 suppliers get their treatment work done at Tenryu's facility. Up until now, Kawasaki Heavy had placed orders for parts processing with each individual supplier.

Millions of parts

Typically, one airplane is made up of 2 to 3 million components, 100 times more than is used in vehicles. As such, the aerospace industry covers a wide range of fields and needs expensive parts, such as titanium and carbon fiber composite materials.

     The aircraft industry also demands much stricter quality control standards than the auto industry, which is why many suppliers are reluctant to enter the field. For example, suppliers have to get accreditation from Boeing or Airbus for everything from materials to production facilities, manufacturing procedures and supply methods.

     Another major deterrence for companies is that it often takes 10 to 20 years to recoup the money invested. ''Even though it will take much time, we need to broaden and fortify Japan's aerospace industry," said Munenori Ishikawa, head of Kawasaki Heavy's Aerospace operations. "Otherwise, there would be no further growth."

     Tominaga of Mitsubishi Heavy says there are limits to doing all production in-house. "Open innovation is what drives our production technology," he said.


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