Snecma chief says time is right for SM-X turbofan

 - November 30, 2006, 8:19 AM

Snecma’s announcement in January that it is to develop the new SM-X turbofan for small regional airliners and mid-sized/large business jets took many by surprise, given the existence of several well-established players in the field and the enormous cost involved in designing and manufacturing an all-new powerplant. However, Snecma’s commercial engines chief, Jean-Pierre Cojan, has since revealed that the move is part of a far wider strategy which, if successful, will leave the French company with a new profile in the aero engine industry, significantly changing the relationship it has hitherto enjoyed with its longstanding partner, General Electric.

That Snecma has arrived at the point where it is now able to offer all of the elements of a complete propulsion system is largely due to the unstinting efforts of its former CEO, Jean-Paul Bechat, who during his tenure achieved the seemingly impossible by creating a single group bringing Snecma and other major French aerospace suppliers into a single company. The result, Safran (headed by Bechat) now includes aerospace propulsion, aircraft equipment, defense security and (through its acquisition of Sagem) communications divisions.

“In the five years since I joined Safran all of the resources needed to build our own engine have been bought together,” Cojan told EBACE Convention News. “We have Aircell for the nacelles, Hispano-Suiza for digital control systems, Turbomeca for small engines expertise and, of course, Snecma’s extensive experience in military engines and with the CFM56 under the 50/50 CFM International partnership with General Electric.

“The SM-X is the latest step in a consistent strategy which takes into account the fact that the CFM56 was always our bread and butter,” said Cojan. The French manufacturer is also involved with GE as a minority partner in the U.S. company’s big turbofan programs.

The company already has a major regional jet engine program under way with its Russian partner NPO Saturn, the 14,000- to 17,500-pound thrust SaM146 powerplant for the Russian Regional Jet. Under the PowerJet equal joint venture, the French company is responsible for the high-pressure section, control system and power transmission, and NPO Saturn for the low-pressure system, final assembly and ground testing. Cojan pointed out that while this arrangement was perfectly tailored for the SaM146 target application, the SM-X will “have nothing to do with the SaM146 in terms of partners.”

He explained the market rationale for the SM-X: “Four years ago we started to talk to airframers about 50- or 60-seat regional airliners. We saw the market was saturated and that the replacement market would come in 2015, not 2010, as we had thought.” In 2015, he added, “the industry will require a direct operating cost 35 to 40 percent lower than is being achieved today. That’s ten years away, so we decided we’d better start thinking about it now.

“Then, in the last two years, we saw a number of business jet programs coming along between 2012 and 2015 for the super mid-size to large categories, requiring engines of 8,500 to 10,000 pounds of thrust. We’ve had discussions with the airframers and have seen a minimum of five and a maximum of seven potential new programs.” Cojan said there are only two available powerplants in this thrust rating: the Allison AE3007 and General Electric CF34. “Both of these are older configurations and we can do much better than that,” he stated, adding that, “it is unlikely we’ll be alone.”

Discussions on partnerships are under way, but Cojan said Snecma will not be looking to either Russia or China. “We note that all the potential airframes are North American in origin, and we believe any partnership must be structured around the market,” he explained. Asked about the chances that Dassault might be attracted to power future Falcon business jets with a powerplant developed in France rather than the U.S., Cojan commented, “Dassault won’t pick us because we’re French but because we have the best architecture, lowest operating costs and global support.”

The development program now under way was launched on January 1 this year and, if it leads to the launch of production, would lead to certification of the new engine in 2010-2011. “We plan to run the core demonstrator in the fall of 2007, then launch full development in the first half of 2008,” explained Cojan, adding that this may stretch to the second half of that year, “depending on the aircraft programs.”