New Russian jet heralds carbon manufacturing shake-up

Russia’s new jetliner, which conducted its maiden flight on Sunday, may have a hard time challenging the sales duopoly of Boeing (NYSE:BA) and Airbus, but it does point the way to radical changes in how they could be building jets in the future.

The MS-21, a new single aisle airliner produced by Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation, is the first passenger plane borne aloft by lightweight carbon-composite wings built without a costly pressurized oven called an autoclave.

The manufacturing process provides a test for a technology already being assessed by Western rivals, who are looking for cheaper and faster ways to build some of their aircraft with composites, according to aerospace executives and suppliers.

Even as it sets up the world’s largest autoclaves to make wings for its giant 777X, Boeing is exploring alternatives for its “New Midsize Airplane” (NMA), in the middle of the market between its big wide-body jets and best-selling 737.

“There’s a good chance part of the NMA will be built without autoclaves,” a person familiar with the project said.

A Boeing spokesman said it was studying mid-market opportunities and declined further comment.

Sources say Boeing’s choice of technology for its two-aircraft NMA family will lay the foundation for the next generation of its money-spinning 737, expected to appear from 2030 and last well into the second half of the century.

Boeing has not yet discussed this part of its strategy publicly, but industry sources said it may include a trio of jets seating 160 to 210 people and built using broadly the same production system as the one developed for the NMA.

Both families of planes are likely to be built for 30 years and stay in service for another 20-30. So today’s technology choices represent a colossal 75-year bet.

Airbus too is monitoring the technology as it considers how to respond to Boeing’s mid-market jet, CNN reported last month. Airbus has declined to comment on the report.

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