Piaggio marks milestone, while increasing output

 - May 17, 2008, 11:08 PM

Piaggio Aero is about to deliver the 150th P180 Avanti II to a customer and the Italian airframer at last seems to be coming to grips with an unacceptably slow production process that has badly stalled its output rate for the program.

Meanwhile, here at EBACE (Booth No. 1305), the Genoa-based company is showing a new version of the twin pusherprop featuring Nordam interiors. The redesigned standard cabin, with fully reclining seats, is the result of an agreement that Piaggio signed with the U.S. company last fall. Three aircraft with the interiors have already been delivered.

Three cabin options are now available for the Avanti II–two of them have seven passenger seats and the other has six. Option number one includes a two-seat divan on the starboard side of the cabin opposite the door and one single seat on the port side facing inside. Beyond this are two pairs of single seats facing each other on both sides of the aisle. Another seven-seat arrangement sees the seat close to the door oriented forward instead of inside, while the six-seat layout has both front seats facing forward.

Should a customer need to change the aircraft configuration, Nordam’s modular interiors make it quick and easy to shift from one layout to another by replacing just a few elements. The partners are developing software that would present customers with virtual representations of the interior options. Piaggio is also considering how to offer retrofit kits for existing aircraft, which might include features such as new passenger service units and new LED internal lights.

The renewal of the interior layout not only improves the aircraft comfort and maintainability, but is also one of the many solutions adopted to accelerate a sluggish production rate for the Avanti. One advantage is that the manufacturer has to deal with only a single cabin interior supplier, compared with more than 30 vendors for the original design. This is expected to reduce the installation time for the cabin interior from more than 15 working days to just three, as well as free up 12 of the 20 employees currently laboring in that work station to serve on other parts of the assembly line.

During 2007, a total of 25 aircraft left the Piaggio assembly lines compared to 18 in previous years, but the production ramp-up is far from being completed. The forecast output for 2008 is to deliver 34 Avantis thanks to improvements in the production process adopted in numerous areas. An increase in the number of assembly stations from eight to 11 is also accelerating assembly of the front fuselage, the rear fuselage (including the wings) and the tail cone with the vertical fin. It has also speeded up the fitting out of all on-board systems.

Another major step in streamlining the production has been the adoption of the Gore Skyflex aircraft sealant, which will replace normal sealant. Skyflex is used for the cockpit windshield but now will serve for more than half of the sealing applications for the Avanti. It is a self-curing product while conventional sealants need about three days to cure.

One of the principal production bottlenecks is the hot chamber where the aircraft has to stay following its painting. The average time for a single aircraft painting cycle is about six days, while a “green” aircraft painted only with primer requires three days, and a complex one-off paint job may take 15 days. To increase production and reduce dead times Piaggio Aero will invest in a second hot chamber, which should become operational by year-end or in early 2009.

All these measures will allow Piaggio to stabilize production next year at some 38 aircraft–one every six working days. From 2010 onward the overall production rate should reach 50 aircraft. The improved production rates for the Avanti will help Piaggio in its efforts to tap demand for this eye-catching aircraft in new markets.
Avanti deliveries exceed 165 and North American customers have received more than 100 of these. The largest customer is fractional ownership provider Avantair, which is operating more than 40 Avantis. All aircraft delivered to the U.S. are “green,” with interiors fitted on that side of the Atlantic.

About 40 Avantis (25 percent of the in-service fleet) have gone to European customers. Piaggio has three sales agents and one distributor covering this large, complex territory. It is particularly keen to boost sales outside the U.S. because the weakness of the dollar against the euro is dampening demand from this market.

To increase its presence in other promising international markets the company is reorganizing its sales network so agents and distributors will operate under three area managers–one for Europe, another for the Middle East and the third for the Far East. The company enjoyed a recent breakthrough in Jordan where a new operator has ordered three Avanti IIs and holds three more options. Three aircraft have been sold in China and negotiations are in progress with an Indian customer. Russia also is considered another potential emerging market.

More Improvements Planned

The company is planning further improvements for the Avanti II, several of which–including an anti-skid system and landing lights–are under scrutiny to verify their cost-effectiveness. New small and powerful landing lights installed in the wing leading edge would eliminate the need for extendable lights under the aircraft nose and on landing gear and should improve the aircraft’s aerodynamic performance.

Following a request by some customers, the TCAS II traffic alert and collision avoidance system will be certified on board the Avanti. Piaggio also is looking to install satellite communication systems, which would be a first for this class of aircraft, as well as various in-flight entertainment options.

Looking to the future, Piaggio started to build its new factory at Villanova d’Albenga. The new plant, which will replace the current Finale Ligure facility, is close to Albenga Airport and is intended to provide a base for implementing further lean manufacturing technologies. It will host all aircraft and engine components manufacturing as well as engine maintenance and overhaul.

Piaggio continues to be reluctant to disclose its thinking about future products, but it is clear that it will not opt for the crowded marketplace for new aircraft smaller than the Avanti. A larger aircraft– possibly a jet able to carry more passengers over longer ranges– seems to be a more likely proposition. However, the company is aware that this could require further investment of between $500 and $800 million and would put it in head-to-head competition with much bigger companies. This is prompting Piaggio to search for innovative technologies to give it an edge in future product development, especially in key areas such as fuel consumption.