Spectrum takes a go-slow approach to jet development럐

 - February 26, 2008, 6:21 AM

In the wake of the recent failure of several competitors, Spectrum Aeronautical is moving ahead cautiously on the development of its all-composite S-40 midsize jet, according to company president Austin Blue.

 “We will break ground on our [Spanish Fork, Utah] production campus toward the end of this year or the beginning of next,” he told AIN. “It’s part of treading that fine line of right-sizing things and planning things ahead, but not too early.” He added that the company already has sufficient capacity to build flight test articles and prototypes.

Blue emphasized that Spectrum is taking a go-slow approach to building the company. “We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves in terms of hiring and building facilities. Some companies try to grow too fast, or are in a rush to look like an airplane company, as opposed to focusing on bringing on the right people. Our development is pretty atypical. We have only one guy on the sales and marketing staff. A lot of companies think that [sales and marketing] should be the focal point. Someday it will be, but not now.”

Spectrum currently shares facilities with its Rocky Mountain Composites (RMC) subsidiary and recently completed construction of an 80,000-sq-ft building devoted to aircraft development. Its production campus will be co-located on an adjacent 73-acre parcel. In addition to supporting Spectrum, RMC fabricates composite parts for a variety of other aircraft companies for manned and unmanned and civilian and military aircraft, including the General Atomics Predator B attack/surveillance unmanned aerial vehicle. Blue’s father, Linden Blue, serves as co-chairman of General Atomics, a diversified energy and defense contractor, and is also chairman of Spectrum.

That outside work not only has helped RMC refine its technology and production processes, but provides a steady stream of revenue Blue views as essential to the orderly and successful development of Spectrum aircraft. “Before this airplane really took shape, there was a decade of idea churn, small-scale experiments and the manufacture of sub-components that got us to where we are today. You can’t do that unless you have other sources of income,” he said.

“The development of the technology and those products over time has helped enormously,” said Blue. “We are not a configuration-driven airplane company; we are a manufacturing technology-driven airplane company that grew out of a composites company,” Blue said. The result, he said, is that the company has had time to develop its approaches gradually, rather than building a stand-alone airplane company and having to generate ideas overnight.

Currently, RMC and Spectrum together employ 150 people at Spanish Fork, and Blue estimates that the Spectrum engineering team stands at about 40 people in-house, with additional support from outside engineering and design firms. At NBAA 2007, company chairman Linden Blue said he expected total employment to be “around 200” by the end of last year.

Certification Plans Revised
Last year the company announced that it was altering its original production schedule. Initially it planned to certify its $3.65 million S-33 this year, with the larger $6.2 million (2006) S-40 to follow. However, the crash of the misrigged S-33 prototype in July 2006, coupled with a change in focus on developing the larger S-40 first, led to a redesigned business strategy. “There was a strong business case for developing the S-40 first,” said Spectrum executive vice president Mark Jones.

The S-40 will be powered by a pair of GE-Honda HF120 turbofans. The engine is expected to be certified next year and Spectrum anticipates S-40 certification sometime late next year or early 2010. Austin Blue said that he expects the S-40 to compete with the Cessna Citation XLS and the Bombardier Learjet 60XR.

Austin Blue said that the engine, in concert with the Spectrum’s lightweight airframe, will allow the S-40 to burn “40 percent or more” less fuel than competitive aircraft. Spectrum has signed a cross-licensing agreement with GE that covers the company’s proprietary FibeX carbon fiber technology. FibeX embeds fibers in the carbon material to provide stiffness and support, as opposed to the traditional and heavier honeycomb layer used in other composite construction techniques.

He declined to reveal the size of the order book for either aircraft, although he did say that orders were distributed almost evenly between the two, that the orders were “comfortable” and that the company still planned to build “30 to 40” aircraft during its first full year of production. “The demand is not going to be the limiting factor the first few years. It is going to be our production capacity and we will have to ramp up the learning curve over the next few years,” he said.

While the ever-increasing price of crude oil makes the Spectrum’s efficiency attractive, Blue acknowledges that it is also driving up the price of its raw carbon fiber material. “The price of fibers we buy today has more than doubled since the late 1990s, and the steepest part of that has been in the last few years.” He pointed out, however, that the worldwide supply of carbon fiber is increasing, and the fact that Spectrum does not buy processed pre-preg (carbon fiber pre-impregnated with resin) makes it a bit easier for it to get raw material.

Spectrum is planning its customer service strategy so that it is in place when the first production aircraft roll off the assembly line. “We’ve seen other programs move too fast with the product before the service and support structure is available,” said Jones. “We don’t want our customers to be disappointed.”

In recent weeks, Spectrum has worked on refining the S-40’s cabin and constructing a fuselage fixture for fit-testing designs and systems. Significant development and fabrication is scheduled over the next three months. Last year Linden Blue said the company had adequate resources to fund development and certification, but that it was seeking production capital.

“Ultimately, we are confident that we will be able to make that transition [from certification to production],” said Austin Blue, who remains acutely aware of the skepticism that swirls around a startup aircraft company. “Nothing we can say or project now is a substitute for airworthy airplanes with good product support coming down the production line. Being a success is not about getting type or production certificates; it is about fulfilling customer needs with an economical and reliable airplane, a maintenance schedule they can live with, and good dispatch reliability.”