To help build the Boeing 787's composite fuselage, Italy spends a bundle.
- By Joe Pappalardo
- Air & Space magazine, July 2007
(Page 3 of 5)
Alenia Aeronautica (a descendant of airplane builders Fiat and Aeritalia) was an obvious choice to be a major player in the 787 program. Besides developing and supplying the outboard flap for the 777, the longest piece of composite structure on the aircraft, Alenia supplied subassemblies for three earlier Boeing airliners and has been a partner on the tanker/transport version of the Boeing 767 since 2001. Partnering with Alenia has helped Boeing reach European buyers; the Italian air force ordered four 767 tanker/transports at about the same time Boeing and Alenia signed the partnership agreement.
Besides fabricating fuselage barrels for the 787, Alenia is tasked with designing and manufacturing the horizontal stabilizer, and also performs static and fatigue trials on the piece. Alenia is the only supplier engaged in this level of complex testing on Boeing’s behalf. The fabrication work is being done in a plant in the town of Foggia, while the testing is done at a facility outside Naples.
As part of the state-owned conglomerate Finmeccanica, Alenia has sometimes suffered from the layers of bureaucracy and political pressures imposed on a nationalized industry. In Italy, as elsewhere in Europe, politics directly affects a company’s strategy. Through a process known as concertazione (consensus formation), in 1993 labor unions secured a powerful voice in the government’s formation of economic and social policy.
“The system operates to discourage changes such as relocations and the entry of new firms,” wrote Edmund Phelps, last year’s Nobel Prize winner for economics, in an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal. “What it lacks in flexibility it tries to compensate for in technological sophistication.”
That philosophy explains the large investments—courtesy of the Italian taxpayers—in cutting-edge machines and techniques. “We looked around the world for partners who understood composite technologies, had experience with commercial airplanes, and had the corporate will to engage in a complex industrialization effort,” says Noble of Global Partners. “Alenia fit the requirements.”
The speed at which the company has moved on the Dreamliner project defies the image of a plodding Italian company, made sluggish by politicians and bureaucrats. A year and a half after its groundbreaking, the Grottaglie manufacturing center, with an area the size of two dozen American football fields and 40 million pounds of structural steel in its bones, produced the first pre-production fuselage sections for the 787. “I think Boeing was surprised by the speed,” says Antonio Perfetti, Alenia Aeronautica’s chief operating officer. “This was not expected from ‘those Italians.’ ”
Nor was this the first time “those Italians” had done something out of the ordinary. Airbus Industrie, a consortium of European-owned aviation companies, has long courted Alenia to become a full partner, but the company has steadfastly (yet politely) refused. Hugel points out that Alenia is sacrificing the security that comes with such a permanent partnership:
“It’s a ‘sure thing’ versus a risk that you’ll get nothing.”
Alenia has developed new manufacturing capabilities and experience to be attractive to both Airbus and Boeing. “The investments for these new technologies are huge,” Hugel says. “Why apply them to only 50 percent of the market when you could get 100 percent?”
Alenia has joined with EADS to produce the ATR regional turboprop and has supplied components to almost every airliner in the Airbus family. It is a partner with U.S. military contractor Lockheed Martin on a medium tactical military transport, the C-27J Spartan. It built the composite wings of EADS’ Eurofighter—experience that helped convince Boeing that the company knew how to work with composites. Most recently, Alenia formed its own joint venture—with Vought Aircraft Industries in South Carolina. The new company, Global Aeronautica, will join the 787 sections being manufactured around the world.
Alenia’s willingness to dance with any partner has earned the scorn of European governments that treat their state-owned industries as tools of diplomacy. That’s where Alenia’s manufacturing capabilities come into play. Because of the company’s factories and its broad experience, European and U.S. companies alike have continued to ask to become partners.
“In the past we were accused of being a two-faced company. I think this is a very stupid criticism,” says Perfetti. “What was once perceived as a negative is now perceived as a point of strength.”