Ten years after it launched the Leap engine program at the Farnborough International Airshow in July 2008, CFM International expects deliveries of Leap powerplants to catch up with the company’s original delivery schedule in the fourth quarter of 2018. Production continues to ramp up to what, by 2020, will be the highest rate ever achieved for any commercial turbofan engine.
Acknowledging to AIN that as of mid-June Leap deliveries remained “four to five weeks behind schedule,” Gaël Méheust, CFM International’s president and CEO, added that “with the current flow of deliveries, the plan is to catch up in the fourth quarter…the catch-up point will be in 2018.” He noted that, with Leap, “CFM is in the process of performing an unprecedented ramp-up.” The joint-venture company will have produced more Leap engines after five years of production than it had in 25 years for the CFM56—its first engine family, according to Méheust.
He said the main reason for CFM falling behind its Leap-1A delivery schedule to Airbus and its Leap-1B delivery commitment to Boeing—a slippage that earlier this year saw the joint-venture company delivering Leap engines to the two airframe OEMs as much as six weeks behind schedule—has been variation in the quality of castings and forgings provided to CFM by its suppliers. Citing this as the remaining key pacing issue in Leap production, he said that CFM’s castings and forgings suppliers “are now curving to more nominal” production quality and the quality of the parts they are delivering is continually improving. This is allowing CFM to deliver more engines each week. “I can tell we will be back” on schedule by later this year, said Méheust, adding that, unlike CFM’s Leap-production experience of vendor-supplied, traditionally manufactured castings and forgings, “the quality of all the new-tech parts is nominal: the [carbon-fiber composite] fan blades, the [ceramic matrix] composites, and the additively manufactured parts are all working perfectly.”
Méheust also cited CFM’s Leap production strategy as a reason deliveries of its new engines have fallen behind schedule. Knowing years in advance that the Leap engine would sell in large numbers because of the strong sales success almost instantly achieved by the Airbus A320neo and Boeing 737 Max families it powers, CFM designed Leap production to be very robust and to offer no single manufacturing choke point that could seriously hurt the production rate. It did so by selecting multiple suppliers—internal and external—for every critical part in the engine, although many of the suppliers CFM chose as vendors to the Leap program were new to the company. Like CFM itself with Leap production, “these suppliers are also on a learning curve, and that has created some disturbance in production,” he admitted. However, by later this year, “the ramp-up will be at full speed and all the suppliers will be at full speed too.”
Another factor that has hindered CFM in being able to catch up to its contracted Leapdelivery schedule has been the company’s continuing, but rather unexpected, sales success with its long-serving CFM56 engine family, which has been built in far greater numbers than any other commercial turbofan engine in history. “The one thing we didn’t anticipate was the level of production of CFM56s” this year, said Méheust. “It’s a nice problem to have … [but] it is creating tension” between the two engine-production programs. “We have production capabilities competing: we were supposed to ramp down the CFM56 as we ramped up the Leap.”
The continuing sales success of both the CFM56 and the Leap—CFM had accumulated orders and commitments for 16,300 Leap engines by mid-June, and to date has sold about 35,000 CFM56s—and the continuing rapid production ramp-up of the Leap will make this year a banner year for the GE-Snecma joint venture, on two counts. One is that in 2018 annual Leap production will exceed annual production of the long-running CFM56 family for the first time: CFM expects to produce more than 1,100 Leap engines this year, having assembled 460 in 2017—plus about 1,050 CFM56s. Second is that this year CFM will break the annual commercial-turbofan production record of around 1,900 engines—a record CFM itself achieved last year by beating its own 2016 record. The company will have produced more than 2,100 engines this year, an increase of more than 10 percent over 2017.
After this year, production of the CFM56 will drop off markedly, according to Méheust, as the Boeing 737 Max substantially replaces the 737NG family on Boeing’s assembly lines, and the A320neo family largely replaces the A320ceo on the Airbus lines. However, CFM is planning to increase Leap production to at least 1,800 engines in 2019 and to increase it further to more than 2,000 engines in 2020. This will ensure that CFM’s overall production will total well over 2,000 engines in any given year throughout the foreseeable future. At this point, CFM has about an eight-year production backlog for the Leap engine family, even at CFM’s 2,000-a-year expected production rate from 2020 onward, said Méheust.
CFM also makes the Leap-1C engine for China’s Comac C919 new single-aisle commercial jet, which Comac hopes to certify in 2020 and which is slated to enter commercial service in 2021. This provides another pleasant problem for CFM: the C919 has accumulated orders and commitments from Chinese carriers for some 1,200 aircraft to date, a total that represents at least 2,400 Leap engines to be built by CFM. But while Méheust acknowledges that the C919 is becoming a commercially significant program, he declined to comment on CFM’s potential production arrangements from 2021 for the Leap-1C—which is internally identical to the Leap-1A but different externally.
“We haven’t yet decided on our 2021 production plan,” said Méheust. “We have time [available] for it and we don’t want to distract our team from the challenge of 2,000 engines [a year by 2020]. Right now our focus is on the commitment we made to our customers and to succeed in the most challenging ramp-up ever seen in commercial aviation. We’re very confident that after 2020 we will be able to adapt ourselves to whatever the requirement of the market is.” As for ramping up production of Leap-1C engines, he said, “We have no worries in our ability and that of our supply chain [to handle it].”