Bombardier Bets Big on Learjet

 - November 2, 2012, 4:35 AM
Bombardier anticipates first flight of the first production Learjet 75 under construction in Wichita, by year-end. (Photo: Curt Epstein)

Though the light and midsize jet markets yet await their resurgence from the depths of the past business cycle downturn, at Learjet there is a near palpable sense of anticipation that such a turnaround is looming. The Bombardier division currently has three new models preparing for entry into service next year—the Learjets 70, 75 and 85–and has embarked on a major expansion at its Wichita headquarters.

The company has committed more than $50 million to the site in a program that will increase the footprint of the facility by 20 percent and create approximately 600 additional jobs over the next two years. “We’re very proud here at Learjet,” said Ralph Acs, vice president and general manager for Learjet during a recent media tour of the plant. “It’s been a long time since we have had the opportunity to even consider expansion.”

Among the new structures to rise will be a new “world class” customer delivery center, aimed at furthering standardization among the company’s product lines. “We’re one company called Bombardier,” noted Acs. “When you pick up your aircraft at Global in Montreal or you come here to Learjet, you want the same delivery experience.”

The existing delivery building will be repurposed for other tasks including the presentation of pre-owned aircraft. Currently under construction is a new production flight building, and work will soon begin on an aircraft paint shop outfitted with the latest technology. Bombardier also enlarged its flight-test center located at the site, enabling its hangar to accommodate any aircraft in the company’s fleet, and added a new machine tool shop building next door to facilitate the rapid production of any crucial part in support of flight-test programs. In preparation for the start of full-scale production of the Learjet 85, the building housing its final assembly line was expanded as well.

In August, the site received the composite fuselage components for the first flight-test (FTV) 85, and employees are in the process of joining them on the assembly line along side those of the complete aircraft structural test (CAST) article, which, when complete, will be sent to the nearby National Institute for Aviation Research (NIAR) for testing.

Manufactured at the company’s facility in Querétaro, Mexico, the major sections traveled by truck for two days, a journey that will be repeated for each Learjet 85. The pre-impregnated carbon fiber components that comprise the fuselage and indeed 85 percent of the total composite material in the 85 are produced in Mexico. In the state-of-the-art environmentally controlled “lay-up” room, all variables such as temperature, humidity and airborne particle counts are carefully monitored, and it is positively pressurized to further minimize any possible contamination that might interfere with the sensitive process.

The Canadian airframer maintains an active training program for its workers. In partnership with local schools, it has classrooms and hands-on onsite training cells where they can perfect their manufacturing techniques under carefully monitored conditions. The composite parts are formed from up to 75 layers (in areas of high stress loading) of carbon fiber fabric, with individually selected weave patterns to impart specific characteristics on the part. The plies are hand laid, using laser guides to show the workers where to apply each layer.

For the fuselage components, an exterior layer containing a delicate mesh of copper wire will serve to abate lightning strikes upon the aircraft. A fuselage currently under construction in Querétaro will undergo lightning resistance testing, while another will be used to explore bird strike damage.

The remaining composite parts in the aircraft such as the wing skins and spars are constructed using the resin transfer infusion (RTI) process at the company’s Belfast facility in Northern Ireland.. “Belfast is our center of excellence for RTI and Querétaro is where we are building up our expertise in the pre-preg work,” said David Flett, program and aircraft integration manager for the Learjet 85 program, explaining the division of the composite work. In a snapshot of how truly international the process has become, the wing components manufactured in Belfast are shipped to Mexico for assembly into a single-piece unit that is then trucked north to the Wichita assembly line for attachment to the fuselage.

Late last month the empennage section on FTV-1 was joined, forming the entire fuselage. The wing unit is expected to be added this month, with the goal of power-on by year-end. Though the aircraft is slated to achieve certification in 2013, as of press time Bombardier had not yet announced a first flight date. When completed, the Learjet 85 will be the first all-composite Part 25 aircraft.

Early Investment in Mexico

Bombardier was one of the first aerospace companies to explore the Querétaro area when it established its initial facility in an industrial park in 2006. Today the region is home to a cluster of plants from manufacturers such as Meggitt, Safran, Eurocopter, GE and Aernnova. On a tour to its facility in September, Bombardier showed off the 185,000-sq-ft building where the Learjet 85 composite fuselage components, among others, are manufactured.

In total the Mexican location produces approximately 560 composite parts for the aircraft that will become the top of the Learjet line, as well as assemble metal and composite parts produced at the company’s other factories in Montreal and Belfast. The Learjet 85 building, which opened in 2010, employs 585 people, approximately one-third of Bombardier’s workforce in Querétaro.

The Mexican facility contributes to a wide range of Bombardier’s products. It is the site of the airframer’s main electrical harness production center and contributes structural assemblies for the Challenger 605 and 850, its CRJ line, and the Q400 turboprop airliner. Aft fuselage assembly for the long-range Globals currently takes place shoulder to shoulder with the construction of the wing units for the Learjet 85 in building number two. With the company’s announcement that aft fuselage assembly for the new Global 7000 and 8000 will take place at the facility as well, that work relocate to a new building currently under construction as Learjet 85 production ramps up.

New Light and Midsize Jets

Back in Wichita, work is progressing on the Learjet 70 and 75, launched this year at EBACE, which will be direct replacements for the Learjet 40XR and 45XR from which they were developed. So closely related are they that the main visible exterior difference between the two pairs are the new canted winglets on the new aircraft. Bombardier has delivered the last of the Learjet 40XRs; the final Learjet 45XR was moving through the production line.

The first Learjet 75 has not yet taken flight (expected before year-end), but a robust flight test program is well under way using a 40XR and 45XR refitted with the new Garmin G5000 avionics suite. Another pair of 45XRs is being used for engine and winglet testing and for interior fitting and CMS system evaluation. The first production 75 will join the test program as well. Bombardier has also taken advantage of the industry slowdown in small and midsize aircraft deliveries to make improvements and lean out its production line. Trying to improve the factory is a lot more complicated “when you are delivering at high volume,” Acs said, noting that a down market “gives people time to think, time to do, time to improve.” 

Such changes have allowed Learjet to achieve an impressive 42-percent improvement in production cycle time for the Learjet 75, compared with that of the Learjet 45XR just a year ago. The introduction of the Learjet 70/75 includes elimination of flights of the green airframe before installation of interiors and painting of the exterior. Alan Young, vice president of operations for Learjet Business Aircraft, told AIN, “[We] have a much bigger focus on quality and no do-overs, no repeat tasks. We put the right work in the right place.”

According to Young, tasks that were left to be accomplished in the preflight hangar, such as cabin door trim, have been moved to earlier in the process, clearing the way for rapid preflight processing. “We deliver a completed aircraft there, we do our preflight safety checks and we gas and go,” he said.