Farnborough Air Show

CFM’s Ebanga Won’t Rest on Last Year’s Sales Cushion

 - July 8, 2012, 12:50 PM

Few expected CFM International to match its record sales campaign of 2011 this year, but after his company sold 900 engines through the first six months of 2012, one might excuse company chief executive Jean-Paul Ebanga for a moment to allow him to catch his breath. But preparations for further production rate increases and testing of the already wildly successful Leap family of turbofans won’t leave much time for rest, as Ebanga leads CFM into some uncharted territory, from both a technological standpoint and by virtue of the sheer number of engines the 50-50 joint venture of GE and France’s Snecma must put into service over the coming years.

Ebanga has no intention of spoiling the company’s reputation for never delaying an airplane delivery, nor to interrupt the respective narrowbody programs under development by Boeing, Airbus and China’s Comac. “CFM is the only company in the aerospace industry able to execute 21 times in a row an entry into service of a new product without any problems, that is, on time and on spec,” said Ebanga.

How well CFM executes the introduction of the Leap powerplant, according to the CFM boss, will reflect the discipline the company showed during the process of choosing the aircraft programs on which it would actively seek a place for the new family of engines. During a July 7 press conference in Farnborough, Ebanga told reporters that the company consciously opted to pursue the propulsion contract for the Comac product over those of the Bombardier CSeries or Irkut MS-21, for example. “When you want to be right on execution, you need to carefully select what kind of target you are pursuing,” said Ebanga. “If you go after every target on the radar screen, you will end up screwing up the program. So basically what we did was a careful assessment of all the newcomers to compute what will be the one offering the most potential in terms of market position and we ended up concluding it would be the C919 program. And we fought for that.”

Of course, execution also depends on a consistent commitment to investment. Speaking with AIN just before the start of the Farnborough International show, Ebanga also pointed to the billions of dollars of investment General Electric and Snecma have committed over the years to develop an efficient technology “pipeline.” Although he couldn’t disclose specifics, over the past five years GE and Snecma have spent between $1 billion and $2 billion annually on CFM, said Ebanga, who expressed particular satisfaction with the manner in which the company has managed the level of risk inherent in the Leap, a program that promises a long-term “step change” in performance and fuel efficiency.

“In terms of the technologies, we are summing this all up in a model that we call the proven breakthrough,” said Ebanga. One example of a “proven breakthrough” lies with the technology applied to the Leap’s 3-D woven carbon-fiber fan blades, the first generation of which GE employed on the GE90.

“We have a unique way of bringing breakthrough technologies on the market,” the CFM boss added. “Not only are we able to make this step change in terms of technologies but also because GE had the first experience with the GE90 carbon blades, we already accumulated more than 28 million hours in service–not testing, but true service. So not only are we introducing this new technology of RTM (resin transfer molding) fan blades, but we are able also to bring in the experience from these hours of service on the GE90.”

By the time the RTM fan blades reach the market with the Leap 1A on the Airbus A320neo, the GE90’s carbon-blade technology will have accumulated 40 million hours of operational experience, estimated Ebanga.

So far having frozen the design on the Leap 1A and the Leap 1C for the Comac C919, CFM expects development of the Leap 1B for the Boeing 737 MAX to lag by roughly nine months, precisely in line with the schedules established by the airframers.

Chosen as the exclusive supplier on both the Boeing and Comac products, CFM shared the spoils on the A320neo with Pratt & Whitney, whose PW1000G geared turbofan took an early lead in race for placement on the Airbus product.

Since last year’s Paris Air Show, however, CFM has secured the propulsion contracts on 578 neos, for a 54.2-percent share. In all, it holds orders for more than 3,600 Leap engines.

It hasn’t yet seen a proportionate decline in demand for CFM56s, however. In fact, it sold 1,500 CFM56s last year, roughly the same number it sold in 2010, and its backlog for CFM56s remains higher than that for the Leap. To underscore the continued viability of the CFM56 market, a company spokeswoman said on Saturday she expected an order for the legacy engines each day of the Farnborough show.

“Even though we have on the news all these stories about the Leap, we want to make sure our CFM56 customers don’t feel left behind because this is an absolutely critical franchise,” said Ebanga. As if to prove that point, the 2010 certification of the CFM56-7BE for the Boeing 737NG brought a 1 percent fuel-burn reduction and a 4-percent maintenance cost benefit, while the CFM56-5B PIP (performance improvement package)–introduced last October in LAN Airlines A320s–yield a 0.5-percent drop in fuel burn and raise endurance on all life-limited parts to 20,000 cycles.

Along with the 1,500 CFM56s, the company last year sold 3,056 Leap engines for a combined value of $51.7 billion at list prices. Acknowledging that 2011’s dizzying sales pace could not continue indefinitely, Ebanga said he sees a return to the long-term trend lines that suggest sales of 20,000 narrowbody airplanes over the next 20 years.

“We’ve lived through ups and downs since the beginning of this industry,” he noted. “I think last year was a bit of [an anomaly] because of the launch of these new programs such as the neo…The fact that things are slowing down a little bit is nothing abnormal; it’s just that we’re back to a more normal pace of business.”

Accordingly, the volume of sales at Farnborough won’t match last year’s total at the Paris show, Ebanga predicted. By the time last year’s show started, CFM had sold only 200 engines–and all for the Comac product. By the end of the show, its total had reached 1,110, finally quieting skeptics’ questions over the early lead the Pratt & Whitney product had built. “We are not looking for the Farnborough airshow to replicate what we did in Paris, just because we don’t need to do it,” he said.

Scheduled to build 1,440 CFM56s this year, the company plans to increase that rate to more than 1,500 in 2013 and to 1,800 in 2018, by which time it expects to be producing Leaps and CFM56s simultaneously. Much depends on how the airframers manage their backlogs, but the company estimates the effective end of CFM56 mass production some time in 2019.