Industry has not seen Koito repeat but quick turn orders are a thing

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In 2010 Japanese seatmaker Koito Industries’ falsification of test data on as many as 150,000 seats in the world fleet came to light. The fiasco, which resulted in FAA and EASA airworthiness directives, created a chain reaction in the industry: myriad aircraft deliveries were delayed; airlines scrambled to find alternative suppliers with the capacity to meet their near-term needs; and seats on an estimated 1,000 aircraft had to be shown as being in compliance with regulations. All Nippon Airways (ANA), a major Koito customer, later sued the firm.

Thankfully for airlines and the aircraft interiors industry as a whole, Koito’s deceitful activities were an exception to the rule. But occasions still arise that require airlines and seatmakers to source alternative seats and seat material in the 11th hour, such as when American Airlines in 2015 sought a new business class seat vendor after grappling with chronic delays from Zodiac Aerospace. Suppliers that have the agility to provide quick-turn solutions to unforeseen problems can find themselves at a competitive advantage.

Thermoplastics specialist Sekisui SPI spent years putting the assets in place to have a flexible production model. “There’s this whole kind of quick response manufacturing that’s required to be in this business. That’s all done and dusted. That took us four or five years to kind of put that model in place for the likes of the Zodiacs and Rockwell Collins,” explains Sekisui president and COO Ronn Cort.

He says Sekisui is able to keep pace with aircraft seat programs that constantly move to the right or indeed to the left. “That flexibility, that was a challenge; that is no longer a challenge. We just accept that as normal.”

Interestingly, Sekisui last year held a summit with Zodiac’s various locations to help them figure out how to manage their material flow. “It makes no sense for us to make the same material for three different locations, that slightly different part number. So we needed to consolidate all of that,” says Cort.

There are a variety of reasons for last-minute orders, notes Dean Li, president of Boltaron, which provides aircraft-rated PVC alloy sheet products for thermoformed and fabricated interior components, and competes with Sekisui in various disciplines. It might be a symptom of a scheduling hiccup at a seatmaker or a “quality issue” discovered in a delivery from another supplier, he says. It can also be borne out of the simple need for a particular product which can’t be easily sourced elsewhere.

Irrespective of the reason, there’s no time to lose when a seatmaker needs replacement material. If it misses the deadline for delivering seats to a major airframer, for instance, the company faces heavy penalties. “If Boeing or …if Airbus say ‘hey I have the aircraft ready for you, waiting for your seat’ and you don’t get it into [them] you pay $100,000 per day,” reveals Li.

Given the substantial costs associated with delaying aircraft delivery, Boltaron has developed a quick-turn model that enables it to fill last-minute orders within “three days most times” and in some instances, depending on the material, in as little as “one or two days”, says Li. Typically Boltaron’s minimum lead time is three weeks.

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For these types of special requests, Boltaron charges a fee for the set-up, but it is a “very small amount compared to $100,000”. Indeed, “it’s peanuts”, in comparison, confides Li.

Asked by RGN if Boltaron saw a boost in business after the Koito debacle eight years ago, Li confirms that the firm did – like others in the supply chain – “catch some of the business for that time”.

Interestingly, some former Koito engineers have transitioned to Toyota interiors unit Toyota Boshoku, which has been developing economy class seats in collaboration with ANA for the last few years, he says. And Boltaron is now “in the early stage” of providing material for Toyota.

An ANA spokesperson tells RGN that a total six Boeing 767-300s are fitted with Toyota Boshoku seats “and all six have been in service since FY2016”. With respect to new developments with the Toyota unit, these are “still under consideration and we will make official announcements when the details are confirmed”.

ANA turned to Toyota to provide seats after the Koito debacle. Image: ANA

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