The fate of Embraer’s 4,000-strong engineering department is a sensitive issue in the negotiations with Boeing. The Brazilian team, responsible for developing new aircraft and improving existing models, is highly regarded for its creativity, innovation, and ability to find solutions to aeronautical problems. The company invests US$600 million per year in research and development (R&D) projects that produce the technological innovations incorporated into its aircraft.
“The engineering culture in Brazil is rich in knowledge, with a holistic vision aimed at real-world applications, which helps stimulate new and innovative applications,” says Antonini Puppin-Macedo, managing director of research & technology at Boeing in Brazil.
– A deal in the air
– Global fight for the skies
One of the reasons behind Embraer’s engineering success is the high level of education held by its staff. Since 2000, the company has been investing in master’s degrees offered by the Technological Institute of Aeronautics (ITA). Some 1,500 engineers and 200 designers have already completed the Embraer Engineering Specialization Program, many of whom were later hired by the company. “Today, Embraer has an impressive aircraft design department that is admired by Boeing,” says engineer Jorge Eduardo Leal Medeiros, a professor from the Department of Transport Engineering at Poli-USP.
There is no shortage of examples of impressive projects developed by the Brazilian company. In the military sector, the EMB-312 Tucano, launched in the 1980s, is a turboprop trainer plane that simulates the experience of piloting a jet, reducing pilot training costs, while the new KC-390 military transport aircraft uses state-of-the-art technology (see Pesquisa Fapesp issue no. 225). The regional jets in the new E2 family, meanwhile, are quieter, emit less pollution, and are about 10 percent more economical than their direct competitors from the Bombardier C Series recently purchased by Airbus.
Analysts are concerned about what will happen to the Embraer engineering department should a partnership with Boeing be agreed. The company currently operates with an integrated structure that connects its three divisions: commercial, executive, and military. Depending on demand, engineers are regularly transferred between the civil aviation and defense departments. Even a partial acquisition by Boeing could result in the technical staff being divided, which according to analysts, could destabilize the company.
Although Embraer has an excellent engineering department, its R&D in related fields does not compare to the work done at Boeing, which conducts important research in avionics (electronics applied to aviation), materials, aeronautical systems, and more.
But Embraer is also attractive due to its production capacity and market intelligence. The company has a modern production structure and a tradition of identifying new market niches. It invests heavily in the automation and digitalization of manufacturing processes in line with industry 4.0 technologies.
If Boeing and Embraer can reach an agreement, it will be the culmination of a relationship that has been developing for years. Since 2011, the two companies have been conducting joint studies into biofuels and flight safety, and Boeing recently supported Embraer in the marketing, sales, and support of the KC-390 multi-mission transport aircraft. They also worked together to integrate Boeing’s smart weapons into the Super Tucano turboprop (see infographic), and in 2014, Boeing opened a Research and Technology Center in São José dos Campos that focuses on biofuels, metals, aerodynamics, and operational efficiency. “We have established a collaborative model for innovation, combining the work performed at the local research center with that of other Boeing R&D units in the US and worldwide, as well as partnerships with research institutions in Brazil and universities in the US,” explains Puppin-Macedo.
The Brazilian center is part of a network of 11 Boeing research units around the world, of which five are located in the US and six are in other countries. “Brazil has some of the most innovative engineers and scientists in the world. The professionals working at our São José dos Campos center are building the future of aviation,” says the executive. According to him, Boeing invests more than US$3 billion per year in R&D globally and has factories, maintenance centers, or commercial offices in some 65 countries.
Embraer is also a global business. Its 18,000 employees are spread across three plants in Brazil—São José dos Campos (commercial and executive aviation), Gavião Peixoto (military aviation and commercial components), and Botucatu (agricultural aircraft)—and four abroad. Factories in Melbourne and Jacksonville, both in Florida (USA), produce executive and military aircraft respectively, while two industrial units in Évora, Portugal, focus on the composite materials and metallic structures used to manufacture aircraft.
Analysts believe that maintaining a high-quality body of engineers is vital if the aerospace industry is to overcome future challenges. The market is demanding ever more economical, quiet, and comfortable airplanes that emit less pollution. Research into electric propulsion is progressing and composite materials that are lighter than aluminum are expected to be used more and more over the coming years. These are some of the challenges that aviation needs to overcome in order to remain at the forefront of innovation.