airbus 350xwb cr.jpgAirbus has signed a JV contract to establish a manufacturing centre for aircraft composite parts in Harbin.

The Chinese JV will manufacture composite material parts and components for the Airbus A350 XWB, which won't come into service until 2013, as well as the existing A320 family of aircraft. The A350 XWB will be the first Airbus with fuselage and wings made mostly from composite materials, which saves weight over aluminium.

Airbus agreed to have up to 5% of the design and manufacturing work for the new A350 done in China and it has also agreed to assemble the smaller A320 in China, at a new facility in Tianjin — the first Airbus final assembly line outside Europe — which was inaugurated in September.

Last year, Airbus forecast that China will need some 2,800 new passenger aircraft and freighters from 2007 to 2026 but such projections have to be taken with a pinch of salt these days. Frost & Sullivan estimates the global aircraft fleet will reduce by 2% due to the economic slowdown with deliveries in the Asia Pacific region reducing to 17,000 new aircraft deliveries in the next 21 years.

Nevertheless, Airbus remains heavily committed to China, both as a big new market for its future aircraft and as a technology transfer partner.

Both Airbus and Boeing are shifting production to low labour cost countries in Asia Pacific, according to Frost & Sullivan. They are also actively seeking ways to reduce manufacturing costs by outsourcing more 'design to build' rather than just 'build to print' to OEM manufacturers. This makes the manufacturers responsible for the maintenance programs for assemblies and parts that they design and manufacture.

So, in the not too distant future, parts of the plane you fly may not just be Made in China but maintained there as well. Food for thought.

Airbus' politically-inspired policy of building the key parts of its planes in different European countries has led to problems in the past. In the case of the A380, incompatibilities between the different versions of the Catia computer-aided design program used at various Airbus sites meant that a key component — a wiring harness — did not fit, resulting in a two-year delay and and a huge loss.

Let's hope that Airbus' Chinese partners are using the right version of Catia.

The Chinese partners are Harbin Aircraft Industry Group Company, Hafei Aviation Industry Company, Avichina Industry & Technology Company, and Harbin Development Zone Heli Infrastructure Development Company.

Airbus press release here.

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