Vendor woes contribute to Eclipse 500 delivery delays

 - February 8, 2008, 4:45 AM

In one year, Eclipse Aviation has ramped up its production of Eclipse 500 very light jets to a rate of nearly one per day. Last year the company’s Albuquerque, N.M. factory built 103 jets and it expects to achieve the one-per-day rate in this year’s second quarter. While this number is well below earlier Eclipse projections, it is nevertheless a remarkable accomplishment and also the fastest rate of production growth of any new jet manufacturer. Eclipse has orders for 2,650 copies of the very light jet.

Acknowledging the fact that the company is still not meeting delivery targets, Eclipse president and CEO Vern Raburn blames the company’s own production capability and problems with component vendors. “I find it fascinating that Boeing is going through the same problems we did,” Raburn said, referring to recent announcements that the jetliner manufacturer has again delayed first flight of the 787 due to production start-up and supply-chain problems.

From early in its program, Eclipse has had tempestuous relationships with some of its vendors. It is possible that some of these troubles stemmed from Eclipse’s inexperience with aircraft manufacturing and from the inability of vendors to
deliver in the high quantities Eclipse demanded.

In some cases, the products that Eclipse needed simply were not available for reasons that suppliers don’t care to discuss. The first engine selected for the Eclipse, the Williams International EJ22, powered the Aug. 26, 2003 first flight of the Eclipse 500 prototype, but shortly thereafter Eclipse cancelled its contract with Williams and redesigned the airplane to accommodate the more powerful Pratt & Whitney Canada PW610F turbofan.

Around the time of the contract cancellation, Dr. Sam Williams, then-CEO of Williams International, told AIN, “I have a high regard for the employees at Eclipse, accept their need for a larger, higher-thrust engine and believe they can be successful.”

Raburn told AIN that he has always “been brutally honest about bad vendors,” although he doesn’t often identify those that are causing problems for Eclipse. Last month, for example, he conceded that one vendor (which he opted not to name) is still causing delays but that most of the problem vendors have dropped out of the Eclipse program. “This is expensive and time-consuming,” he said. “It diverts our resources.” In 2006 he claimed another vendor (which he also declined to identify) was delaying the program.

Most of the Eclipse 500 components are manufactured by vendors and shipped to Albuquerque for final assembly, although Eclipse technicians still accomplish many steps in the manufacturing process. The start-up manufacturer does most of the friction-stir welding (FSW) that eliminates 63 percent of the rivets used in a similar-size metal airplane, although wing-manufacturer Fuji Heavy Industries does some FSW in Japan. After the wings arrive from Japan, Eclipse techs add all the components and the main landing gear, but these steps will soon be shifted to Fuji to help increase efficiency at the Eclipse factory.

Supply Chain Troubles
Looking at the list of Eclipse suppliers–provided to AIN by PMI Media’s Aviation Supply Chain Database–it is clear that a modern aircraft manufacturer is enormously dependent on the aerospace supply chain. And Eclipse Aviation depends heavily on relationships with vendors that make some fairly large parts of each aircraft.

The Eclipse 500 empennage, for example, is made by Hampson Industries at Hampson’s Grand Prairie, Texas factory. Hampson filed a lawsuit against Eclipse last November, accusing the airframer of failing to pay what it owed per its contract with Hampson. After first claiming that its contract with Hampson “was procured by fraud,” Eclipse later rescinded that claim and agreed to abide by the contract. The two companies reached a final settlement last month.

The Hampson situation was unusual in that the lawsuit brought the issue into the public realm. In most other cases where problems have involved vendors, Eclipse has been fairly quiet. Raburn would rather point out, as he has all along, that Eclipse is trying to change the way the aerospace industry does business. “Our lack of production is our fault,” he said, “but [it is] mitigated or accelerated by vendors. Some vendors didn’t deliver and diverted us from other [issues]. We’re trying to change the behavior in the aerospace vendor base,” he added, noting that in other industries, manufacturers would not tolerate the kind of treatment that Eclipse has received from some of its less capable vendors.

Other vendors that have had problems with Eclipse include Avidyne and BAE Systems, key players in development of the first iteration of the Avio avionics system. Eclipse dropped BAE in early 2004, replacing it with a number of other vendors, some of which also are no longer working for Eclipse. Avidyne was replaced last year by a group of vendors that includes Innovative Solutions & Support (displays), Honeywell (radios), Garmin (transponder), Chelton (FMS) and PS Engineering (audio panel). Honeywell itself has experienced the Eclipse shuffle; its radar was dropped in favor of one made by a civil aviation radar newcomer, Japan Radio.

Raburn doesn’t hesitate to praise vendors that have had an enormous influence on what Eclipse has achieved thus far, especially engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney Canada. “Pratt is our best partner,” he said, admitting that “we get in fights and have disagreements, but we always resolve them.”

The vendors themselves are generally reticent to discuss these disagreements, avoiding any public airing of issues. Spectralux, which in partnership with Accord Software is providing the NexNav GNSS/WAAS sensor for the Avio NG system, declined to answer AIN’s questions about why Avio NG’s GPS functionality has been delayed. “We have a policy of not discussing or disclosing to third parties…information between ourselves and our customers,” explained a Spectralux spokesman.

Astronics Advance Electronic Systems manufactures key elements of the Eclipse 500’s electrical system, including the Astronics CorePower primary and secondary electronic power distribution system, EmPower in-seat power supplies and seat outlets, exterior lighting and LED-lit cockpit control panel assemblies and interfaces that allow LRUs to communicate with Avio NG.

Asked about the status of its relationship with Eclipse, an Astronics spokesman wrote, “Eclipse and Astronics enjoy a mutually beneficial relationship that has exceeded the expectations of both companies in many areas. We work through any issues with teamwork and respect which has strengthened our relationship. Any problems that have arisen are not beyond the typical start-up issues associated with any new aircraft that moves into production and out into the marketplace. We look forward to a bright future with Eclipse Aviation.”

One aerospace industry veteran is sympathetic to vendors and manufacturers that keep their problems to themselves. “When you start outing your suppliers, the suppliers start becoming more conservative,” he said.