Honda extends jet sales beyond U.S.

 - April 30, 2008, 9:27 AM

Honda Aircraft’s announcement that it will offer the $3.65 million HondaJet for sale in the European market beginning this month “is a big milestone,” according to Michimasa Fujino, president of the start-up aircraft manufacturer. “We have a lot of customer inquiries from the European market,” he said. To jumpstart that effort, for the first time Honda Aircraft will exhibit at the EBACE show in Geneva (May 20 to 22), although the company won’t bring the prototype HondaJet to EBACE, Fujino said, because “flight testing is intense.”

Honda Aircraft announced in March that it has begun selling the HondaJet in Mexico and Canada as well. Mexican operator Aerolíneas Ejecutivas ordered 10 copies of the airplane for its Mexjet fractional-share operation.

The HondaJet certification program remains on schedule, Fujino said, and the flying prototype continues to amass hours fine-tuning the final aerodynamic configuration so the next models built are fully compliant with FAA Part 23 regulations and conform to the final design. Honda Aircraft engineers conducted many tests before the commercialization of the HondaJet was announced, according to Fujino. “Airplane certification is different from other products like automobiles or computers,” he said. “Sometimes people may underestimate [what it takes]. I do not want to underestimate. We did our homework before starting certification.”

Standardizing Production Processes

Honda Aircraft has hired a number of experienced certification experts and designated engineering representatives who have been collaborating closely with the FAA Aircraft Certification Office in Atlanta since the inception of the program. “So far, from a certification standpoint, we don’t have any surprises,” Fujino said.

For Fujino, the more difficult challenge has been creating a new company. “We have to create many business processes that are required for the certification process,” he said. “It’s more like we are creating a company as well as an airplane at the same time. This may be a big challenge for us, but the challenge at the same time is exciting, too.”

The over-the-wing engine mounting configuration entails no special requirements, Fujino said, and the FAA is treating rotor-burst requirements just as it would with fuselage-mounted engines.

The second prototype is under construction now. Major subassemblies are due for delivery to Honda Aircraft’s new Greensboro, N.C. factory in the third quarter; Honda technicians will start the final assembly process in preparation for first flight during next year’s second quarter. GKN Aerospace is building the airplane’s composite fuselage, while Avcorp is building the all-metal wings.

Honda Aircraft technicians are manufacturing smaller parts in Greensboro, which is where the final assembly production line is planned. Honda Aircraft is opening its Greensboro headquarters facility this month and the aircraft research and development and prototype fabrication space in August.

FAA certification of the HondaJet is on schedule for 2010, to be followed immediately by initial deliveries in the U.S. EASA certification should take place three to six months after FAA certification, and Honda Aircraft has already applied for and received an EASA project number. However, European deliveries probably won’t begin until one or two years after U.S. deliveries, according to Fujino. “We have lots of back orders,” he said, “and we have to deliver to customers in the U.S. first.”

Honda Aircraft engineers kept EASA certification requirements in mind from the early days of the design, he said, so the HondaJet won’t experience delays obtaining EASA certification.

Fujino is expecting early HondaJets to take longer to build as the entire plant climbs the learning curve. He said engineers tried to design the airplane so it was easy to assemble, but he is taking the worst case into account, which means the early airplanes might take three or four times longer to assemble than the 200th. “It’s more conservative to use the industry standard learning curve,” he said.

However, Fujino and the Honda Aircraft engineers are seeking to standardize the assembly process, tools and machinery as much as possible, to make assembly more efficient and avoid problems that aircraft manufacturers typically face by having to perform a lot of customized final assembly work.

One technique that Honda Aircraft is using to make assembly more efficient is “determinant assembly,” a lean manufacturing technique that helps suppliers and OEMs ensure that parts fit together properly for final assembly. Each part is manufactured as accurately as possible using key features such as holes or hinge lines to set the base alignment for all operations done to a particular assembly. “The basic concept is to try to minimize any adjustment that slows down assembly time,” he said.

Honda has orders for “more than 100” HondaJets, according to Fujino, but that number was revealed early in the program and is likely much higher by now. “We’ll have more significant announcements at EBACE on May 20,” he said.