HK plans flight into international market by seat of its pants
The humble aircraft seat may be Hong Kong's ticket to enter the fiercely competitive international aviation industry.
With a HK$10 million grant from the Innovation and Technology Fund, the Productivity Council wants to turn the city into a major producer of airplane seats. Council researchers have just reverse-engineered an economy-class seat for the Airbus A340, based on local airlines' discards.
Li Li-man, the council's manager for manufacturing technology, said it was difficult for Hong Kong to develop key components such as engines and airframes, but there was a huge market for cabin parts.
The seat comprised 800 components and was built to withstand 16 times the force of gravity.
'The aircraft-repair industry in Hong Kong has a very high ranking in the world,' Li said. 'We have a good safety record and the price-performance ratio is better than other countries. Planes from many Western countries are repaired here and airlines need to buy many parts.'
Six local manufacturers have joined the project and plan to start a factory in Dongguan for mass production. Li believes there is market potential to expand into making other cabin parts such as overhead compartments, pantries and even washrooms, on which he says Hong Kong can compete on price.
The council has produced a two-seat set, which would cost US$10,000 on the international market, but Li thought the Hong Kong version could be sold at a competitive 20 per cent discount. Production could begin in 2012, he said.
According to Li, aircraft seats have a lifetime of five to seven years. But airlines replace them more frequently to keep the cabin environment fresh. Local airlines on average replaced 7,000 to 10,000 seats a year, while mainland airlines replaced 20,000, he said.
But the aircraft-parts industry was currently dominated by manufacturers with strong national support, or involved joint ventures licensed by original manufacturers. 'If there is a local source to supply the parts, it can lower the cost and shorten the order time for airlines,' Li said.
After being inspired during a visit to a German maker of aircraft seats, the council obtained discarded seats from local airlines, disassembled them to examine their structure, and produced a prototype copy.
Li said it was not a matter of being original, as the council could not 'invent' a new seat: every single part on an aircraft needed to undergo strict tests; if a seat departed even slightly from the approved design, it would be rejected.
Spokesmen for Cathay Pacific and Dragonair said they were interested in the local project.
Li is proud of the initiative. 'This will be a pioneer project for local manufacturers to accumulate experience,' he said. 'In the future, I hope we can produce other products.'