2025 ambition might not fly for China

| Rhea Liem 27 Mar 2019

Rhea Liem, Assistant Professor, Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, HKUST

The "Made in China 2025" initiative - first announced in 2015 to close the gap between the Chinese and Western technological prowess - was not mentioned at the opening session of the National People's Congress this month.

Critics say the omission was to appease Washington amid turbulent Sino-US trade negotiations.

Politics aside, as the 2025 timeframe is about halfway through, are the goals - with one key focus being making its jetliners to take up to 20 percent of the global market - still achievable?

A few months back, the C919 of Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China, or Comac, landed safely in Shanghai, showcasing China's upgraded aircraft-manufacturing capabilities.

Expected to commercially operate in 2021, C919 is a narrow-body twinjet airliner that is the equivalent of the Airbus 320 and the Boeing 737.

To promote fuel efficiency, Comac chose to use the new high-bypass turbofan engine that offers 11 to 12 percent better fuel efficiency that could bring huge savings for airliners.

Airbus and Boeing have also used the same engine type for their new variants, A320neo and B737 Max.

Competition is fierce, and the aircraft manufacturer duopoly benefits from their learning curves, experience and legacy designs as they only need to modify their successful aircrafts.

Only set up in 2008, Comac did a really good job catching up, but how much of C919 is domestically designed and produced to be "made in China" by 2025? And will it achieve the targeted market share by then?

An aircraft is a highly complex and multidisciplinary system as it brings together a multitude of key technology disciplines.

While designed and developed in China, C919's most complex and technologically advanced components come from foreign companies and only 50 percent of the components are domestically produced.

Moreover, the high safety standard in the industry requires everything to be tested and certified to "aircraft grade."

Passenger seats, for instance, have to go through far more rigorous testing and certification processes than those in cars and buses. To secure market dominance, C919 needs to be globally certified.

Europe's aviation safety regulator is currently carrying out the certification process, and the certification from China is expected to be obtained by the end of 2020.

To gain entry to the US market, however, C919 must obtain certification from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Yet, some sections that are necessary for FAA might not be so for the Civil Aviation Administration of China.

This would lead to some critical decisions in the near future on how many design changes are necessary, and how much money Comac would be willing to invest.

All aircraft design processes experience multiple setbacks and delays.

With support from Beijing and a strong research and development team, C919 can be successful and it is possible to enter the market in the early 2020s.

However, it'd be very challenging, if not impossible, to have a 100 percent locally designed and produced aircraft by 2025.

HKUST experts have their fingers on the pulse of a new age of science, technology and innovation

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