Could manufacturing and production of a complete aircraft within Mexican borders be in the country’s not-so-distant future?
“We have the opportunity to do so … maybe a Lear Jet 85,” says senior aerospace consultant Jean Claude Bouche. “If we do so, then the cluster will change. We have sophisticated technology to manufacture aircraft in Mexico and sufficient foreign suppliers that are doing a good job to complement the supply chain. But we have to first bring other players from the U.S., France and Canada with high-technology platforms.”
Though based in Toulouse, France, Bouche has been immersed in various aerospace industry development and strategic projects in Mexico for the past eight years. He has seen the number of aerospace suppliers based in Mexico grow from 100 to 250 companies in that time.
For years, Bouche notes, it was a challenge to get companies to invest in aerospace-related “secondary processes” in Mexico, such as heat-treating, metal finishing, plating and anodizing. Now “primes” – such as Bombardier, Hawker Beechcraft and other well-known aircraft manufacturers – have presences in Mexico and are utilizing the services of original equipment manufacturers, or OEMs, to produce various components used in building their planes.
“The problem is that these prime contractors are not manufacturing a complete aircraft,” Bouche explains. “At this time, doing so is not quite possible, as all of the processes that need to be in place are not available in the country as of yet.”
Case in point: Bombardier recently shared details on production milestones with its Learjet 85 aircraft. Production of two flight-test aircraft is under way, with joining of the nose fuselage to the main pressure fuselage and assembly of the aft fuselage, vertical stabilizer and tail-cone fuselage sections taking place at Bombardier sites in Wichita, Kansas, and Queretaro, Mexico. Wing spars and skins manufactured at the company’s Belfast, Northern Ireland, location were delivered to Queretaro for wing assembly, and the aircraft’s Pratt & Whitney Canada engines have been delivered to Wichita’s final assembly line.
“When you have primes in an aerospace cluster, there needs to be a presence of suppliers to support them; we call some of these companies Tier 1, as in the automotive industry,” the consultant continues. “There needs to be a critical mass of business in Mexico in order for secondary process (Tier 1) service providers to invest. Secondary processes are intense in their use of capital equipment, and, therefore, investments in them are costly.
“The problem is not to invest in one process, but to invest in 10 or 15 processes,” he explains. “When we speak about special processes, there are 41; within that number, there are 18 checklists. There is a mix of processes such as passivation, and other tests. If companies need to fulfill a complete package, they need to understand the actual needs of the OEMs and primes. Today (it) is not happening this way.”
Bouche believes Mexican companies eventually will “provide services that will replace those in Montreal, in Seattle or Toulouse,” including painting, the manufacture of fasteners, elastomers, and plastics.
“Today, in 2012, it will be difficult to complete an aircraft in the next 10 years; we might have to wait 20 years,” he says. “It really depends on the prime contractor. If companies have the long-term vision, they can see that it is an opportunity to invest now for the future.
In the meantime, a gap in the production chain is not stopping aerospace companies from investing time and resources in Mexico. Airbus and six other OEMs have production facilities in Mexico, and the country now weighs in as the sixth-largest supplier of aeronautical products to Europe and ninth to the States. Embraer and Zodiac Aerospace this summer announced they would partner in Mexico to manufacture cabin interior parts for commercial jets. And, of course, more than 1,000 Mexican engineers and technicians are weighing in on Bombardier’s Lear Jet 85 project in Queretaro.
Mexico’s future workforce is paying attention, too: More than 745,000 of the country’s university students are enrolled in engineering and technology programs. This increasingly skilled pool of talent supports major aerospace clusters in areas such as Chihuahua and Querétaro, as well as the developing aero-engine manufacturing hub in Guaymas, Sonora.