Wisdom of Snecma’s Choice of SaM 146 Engine over GEnx Still Debatable

 - September 24, 2010, 10:17 AM
Snecma formed its joint venture with NPO Saturn six years ago to develop the Powerjet SaM 146 engine for the Sukhoi Superjet 100. It simultaneously declined GE’s offer to take a stake in the GEnx, which powers the Boeing 787 and 747-8.

Certification this past summer by EASA and the Russian authorities of the Powerjet SaM 146 engine no doubt marked an important milestone in Franco-Russian industrial cooperation. But the wisdom of the decision by France’s Snecma to participate in the program will remain a matter of debate for years to come.

When, in 2004-2005, Snecma decided to move forward with a 50-50 partnership with NPO Saturn to power the Sukhoi Superjet 100, it simultaneously declined to take a minority stake in GE’s GEnx. At the time, Snecma’s unions and other industry observers questioned the choice. On one side, the chance to participate in the revival of civil aircraft manufacturing in Russia appealed to those eager to cement ties with a promising upstart. On the other side, a stake in the replacement of the CF6 engine almost surely would guarantee big sales. In 2005, Snecma’s then-CEO Jean-Paul Béchat explained that GE’s commercial terms were too harsh. He also insisted Snecma wanted to use its technology on a full engine core for a civil application–as on the Powerjet SaM 146–as opposed to its role in other civil engines.

Six years later the jury remains out for Snecma. Boeing, which had planned a 2008 service entry for the GEnx-powered 787, has yet to deliver its first 787 and won’t until at least the middle of next year’s second quarter. Sukhoi, with a much shorter record in modern civil aircraft design, is “only” about two years late with its Superjet 100. It too still hasn’t delivered the first copy of its new aircraft. In terms of orders, the GEnx production backlog is excellent (at 1,100 engines sold, GE claims), but that of the SaM 146 isn’t bad for its category (Sukhoi says it holds 152 firm orders for its twinjet). So one can’t call Snecma’s bet a success yet, but it appears far from a failure.

The French manufacturer will, in a few years, have to face strong competition from Pratt & Whitney’s geared turbofan. The PW1000G promises a step-change in fuel burn. At least the Russians probably feel more confident in NPO Saturn, which seems to have overcome the financial woes that beset it last year. Now Saturn has proved that it could assume a major role in developing and assembling an engine to EASA certification, which it won in June. (It gained Russian certification last month.) In the near future, it could prove valuable for Snecma to have a reliable counterpart in Russia, thus making for one more option when devising partnership strategies.