Alternative fuels and improved logistics in Airbus’ future

  • 30-Jun-2008 06:21 EDT
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Airbus is aiming to improve manufacturing efficiency with major changes to its logistics system and greater involvement of suppliers in managing inventories.

The need to develop alternative fuels for all transport systems is becoming increasingly important, and Airbus is taking part in the French CALIN (Carburant Alternatifs et Systèmes d’Injection Innovants) research project. Launched in July 2007, it is scheduled to continue for another 20 months. In CALIN, Airbus is working with major research institutions including ONERA, IFP, and CNRS, and with industry partner Safran.

Airbus stated that as part of the company’s commitment to reduce the impact of aviation on the environment, it is now focusing its research and technology effort on developing "green" aviation technologies aimed at improving aircraft fuel efficiency, reducing CO2 and NOx emissions, and cutting noise. Finding suitable alternatives to kerosene is one area of research Airbus is focusing on, and it expects that promising kerosene and biofuel blends will be identified by 2010.

The CALIN research work aims to identify and evaluate a number of alternatives to kerosene for the short, medium, and long term, and is looking at what kind of fuel could be both suitable and available, and what modifications would be required to the engine, aircraft fuel systems, and aircraft configuration. In the coming months, Airbus plans to extend this research program with European and worldwide research and industry partners.

For CALIN to achieve a meaningful success, it is necessary to concentrate on achieving an integrated technology input, according to Airbus. In addition to its research into alternative fuels, the company is working with fuel producers, engine manufacturers, airlines, and airport authorities to develop a standard approval process for alternative fuels. This effort will resolve the issues of qualification, certification, and the potential introduction of alternative fuels at an industry and worldwide level. This work is being carried out within the U.S. Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuel Initiative (CAAFI), as well as with the International Air Transport Association's Alternative Fuel Project that was initiated in 2006.

The reduction of overall aircraft mass is a central requirement in this integrated effort. Since the double-decker A380 program was launched in December 2000, Airbus has filed more than 380 patent applications for technologies, including several that have contributed to weight reduction. The use of carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic (CFRP) for the large primary structures of the A380 is a significant weight saver, and Airbus has patented a new joining process for producing the world’s first carbon-fiber-composite center wing box for commercial aircraft. About 25% of the A380 structure uses composites. Airbus quotes a figure of 15 t as the mass savings CFRP has provided, and notes that low mass is a highly meaningful contributor to reduced fuel burn.

Its patented technologies represent “significant breakthrough innovations,” according to Airbus. As well as lightweight materials, they apply to aerodynamics, cabin design, engine integration, flight controls, aircraft systems, and manufacturing techniques. The Zero Splice Inlet integrated into the engines’ nacelles is a single 360° piece that obviates the need for separate spliced panels, bringing benefits in reduced noise levels.

Airbus’ filed patents also cover the A380’s avionics data communication network, which it says supports the increasing intersystem communication needs with the benefit of further improving data integrity and transmission speed. “Brake-to-Vacate” is another novel technology that optimizes the amount of energy used for braking and reduces runway occupancy time, with the added bonus of providing improved passenger comfort during runway deceleration.

Patent applications also cover the electrical back-up hydraulic actuator, which is part of the A380’s new two-energy, four-channel flight-controls architecture. The architecture increases the performance and reliability of the flight-control system due to its energy source (electrical and hydraulic) and reduces weight by suppressing one hydraulic circuit.

With work moving ahead on alternative fuels for greater environmental efficiency, and with its patented technologies bringing a wide range of benefits, Airbus is also working with suppliers to improve its logistics system. It is introducing best practices applied within the automotive industry and simplifying current processes in key areas of the logistics chain, including logistics centers, transport, and inventory to achieve enhanced leanness and greater cost efficiency. At present, there are about 80 logistics centers at Airbus; the company wants to see this drastically reduced to fewer than eight. The changes are likely to take more than two years to achieve and will result in a rationalization of inbound flows of parts and components, which Airbus describes as currently being “a complex and fragmented process.”

The aim is to have a single transport system for all incoming flows. Some management of inventory will be transferred to Airbus suppliers, who will have a real-time view of Airbus’ stock via the company’s eSupplyChain system to achieve a just-in-time manufacturing system. A vendor-managed inventory system is to be introduced that will see suppliers conforming to a minimum or maximum inventory level that they will manage.

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