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The Secrets of Low-Rate, Low-Cost Rafale Production

 - November 14, 2009, 3:01 AM

How can the Rafale be produced–and offered for export–at an economic price when the production rate is only about one aircraft per month? Official French statistics give a unit production cost of only ?64- to ?70 million in 2008 prices, depending on variant, excluding amortization of development costs, but including value-added tax of 19.6 percent (which would not be payable on export aircraft).

According to Guy Piras, the Dassault executive vice president for industrial operations, the answer lies in a combination of leadership style, up-front investment and shop-floor expertise.

Piras told AIN that clear design leadership, to an agreed technical language, by a team that also extends to manufacturing engineering is very important. This is a familiar Dassault theme. “But we make a big effort on the nonrecurring costs. Just like the automobile industry, we invest heavily in manufacturing engineering,” Piras also noted. This includes the flow-through of digital data from design to manufacturing. The Rafale was the first combat jet to be industrialized from a digital mockup. Dassault has been the world leader in aerospace digital design–indeed, it has exported CATIA systems that have been used to design competitors to the Rafale.

“We use the minimum of tools, but the very best ones, together with the best possible working instructions,” Piras continued. Dassault switches tooling between products more than other airplane companies, he believes. Final assembly of the Rafale and of the Dassault Falcon business jets are both done at Bordeaux.

“Our people are very important to us,” said Piras. “We educate them, and they are craftsmen and experts in their domain. We provide the best possible working instructions. But we don’t have to tell them how to drill a rivet or what tools to use. They know that already.”

Unlike most competitors, Dassault manufactures its own flight controls in a dedicated facility at Argonay. The company also designs robotic engineering tools, from the CATIA system, and programs them, as well as designing and making all its own tool bits.

The Rafale is entirely French-made. Two Dassault sites–at Argenteuil (forward fuselage) and Martignas (wings)–are key cogs in the production wheel. The aft fuselage is subcontracted to Latécoère, “a long-standing and trusted supplier,” according to Piras.

Unless current plans change, the French defense ministry will eventually order 286 Rafales. Since the program started, this total has been reduced by only eight aircraft, in order to pay for the “F3-Plus” development. The contract for a further 60 aircraft, bringing the total on firm order to 180, was approved by the government last Thursday. Production is not to end until 2023.

According to the French defense ministry, despite the slow pace of orders and the consequent need to replace obsolescent parts more often than originally planned, the overall cost of the Rafale program (development and production) increased by only 4.45 percent between 1996 and 2007. It is now ?39.6 billion in 2008 prices. This is a remarkable record, especially when compared to the Eurofighter Typhoon, to which the four partner nations committed in the belief that there was strength and efficiency in numbers. However, Dassault officials cautioned AIN that inflation was taking its toll in the Rafale program. Against this, there is the serious prospect of export orders, which will increase the production rate and help amortize the cost of future development.