Airbus faces the challenge

  • 11-Jul-2008 11:27 EDT

The first arrival stage in the A380 plant at Toulouse has major fuselage components prepared for joining to the wings and tail. The completed structure then has wing pylons added and is moved into the next bay, where up to four A380s can be worked on, side by side, with four more in the adjacent bays.

The annual Airbus Technical Briefing for media was kicked off by CEO Tom Enders announcing that Airbus was slightly revising down its delivery schedule for A380s in 2008 and 2009, with four aircraft slipping to 2010. This, he said, was due quite simply to the huge scale of the A380 production and assembly process; and re-wiring solutions were proving to be more complex and time-consuming than envisaged.

Earlier wiring problems were identified long ago and a rectification path was selected. This solution involved what is known as the “Wave 1” fix and was addressed by implementing a bespoke re-wiring solution for the 13 semi-completed aircraft. But this was further delayed, largely as a result of a grave shortage of suitably skilled labor, and this in turn had an effect on work required for the follow on “Wave 2” aircraft, which were to transition to a new manufacturing process for the production ramp-up. The result of these changes means that in 2008 A380 deliveries will be down to 12 (instead of 13) and 21 (instead of 25) in 2009.

The schedule for 2010, after the next production ramp-up, should see between 30 and 40 A380s delivered. The massive Toulouse final assembly plant will be capable of completing up to four A380s each month eventually, and this could go higher, depending on demand, with growth space on the current line for assembling future stretched models.

“Overall we needed more time and resources than expected, and although we initially thought this could be resolved through increased manpower and more outsourcing, we have been hit by an industry-wide shortage of skilled labor, making it impossible to complete the work to the standards required,” said Enders.

Over the last five years, he said, Airbus had already made great gains in increasing productivity by delivering 50% more aircraft with a workforce increase of only 24%. The drive toward leaner manufacturing techniques and streamlining processes, along with integrating tools and standardizing reporting systems across the company, had in fact moved Airbus forward even though “that work might not have been grabbing headlines in the way divesting sites or reducing headcounts has, but it is at least, if not more, critical in terms of our future success,” said Enders.

Enders also admitted that Airbus had become overloaded with too many development and restructuring programs running in parallel. People, he said, needed to adapt, learn, and improve more and at a quicker pace. Skills had to be enhanced with more recruitment, training, knowledge management, and succession planning across all the company teams. He said the last two items were particularly important as older, more experienced specialists and workers retired and were replaced by a new generation.

A presentation by Guinot Marc, Chief Engineer on the A380, and Mhun Philippe, Vice President A380 Program Customer Services, focused on progress since the certification and introduction into service of the first A380s with Singapore Airlines. The Rolls-Royce Trent 900 was certified by the EU and U.S. in December 2006, the first time both certificates were granted on the same day. Almost exactly a year later, in December 2007, the Engine Alliance GP7200 received type certification and is due to enter service soon with Emirates.

Since the series of global route-proving demonstration flights was carried out in 2007, and following the start of daily intercontinental nonstop flights between London and Singapore, Airbus has monitored performance closely as part of an intensive maturity and operability campaign. The environmental performance of the A380 has shown it to consume just 2.9 L/km with 75 g of CO2 per pax/km (in comparison, EU automobile manufacturers target 140 g/km).

As well as low fuel consumption and emissions, the manufacturing process features chromate-free primers and paints, has low VOC primers and paints for external livery, and has introduced new chromate-free technologies. Minimum turn-around times of 90 min have been demonstrated in airport use, and flight reliability has been outstanding for an all-new aircraft, according to Singapore Airlines, which has been able to charge an A380 supplementary premium charge for some fares, such is the aircraft’s passenger appeal.

There has been a rapid ramp-up in engineering training for customer airlines to ensure minimum interference in day-to-day commercial service. The advanced technical specification for the A380 has permitted an e-enabled approach to support deliverables aimed at flight operations and engineering support. The aircraft’s onboard fully digital technical monitoring systems provide a downloaded report to service and support centers, as well as to the aircraft crew, so any in-flight technical problem can be cured with minimum delay.

A close partnership between manufacturer and customer has enabled operational needs to be addressed through not only training but also preparation of support processes and IT tools, which extends to customer roadmaps that include configuration management and recovery programs.

The fully digital AirN@v technical data tool is the primary technical consultation tool for air or ground use and gives one-stop access to every aspect of aircraft documentation, including a Microsoft Windows-based virtual aircraft tour that shows an engineer how to access every component and its relationship with other system parts.

Minimizing the impact of technical events on aircraft operations is the AIRTAC proactive support engineering plateau for the AIRMAN system. AIRTAC comprises a fully integrated control room and wall display that shows global operational status at a glance. AIRMAN collects and analyzes events related to any indicated aircraft defects. The whole support package provides the operator with an optimized engineering support solution and includes mobile data distribution with a user-friendly laptop-compatible format.

When Singapore Airlines started operations, Airbus provided a large backup support team of experts acting as troubleshooters alongside airline staff. This reinforced support team has now been reduced as the airline’s own people have settled into the key engineering support roles, but there is a strong interactive link to the Toulouse engineering plateau so expert advice from Airbus, and other suppliers, is always on hand.

Airbus may have been suffering through resource shortages, but at the same time it has been battling to contain costs through a series of aggressive lean manufacturing initiatives. As the impact of enforced lean programs, driven by competition, hits right across the aerospace supply chain, all major manufacturers have been looking at how best to balance this difficult dilemma.

A key area of focus at Toulouse is the Airbus Lean Production System (ALPS), aimed at reducing waste in all its forms, from raw materials to finished goods, along all value streams and across all manufacturing sites, engaging the entire workforce. There is a hollistic approach to lean methodologies under the ALPS scheme that touches on safety, highest quality, lowest costs, environmental impact, standardization, and problem solving.

A lean implementation policy aims to transform current conditions to optimize them for the better. This is seen by Airbus as a business transformation issue and adopts a product flow-line principle creating better flow, transparency, and a more positive problem-solving mentality. The visibility of initiatives and progress charts (on screens or panels) has resulted in significant results and is helping to steer the company toward an optimized working environment.

Another Airbus program enabling transformation and continuous improvement is known as the Lighthouse Initiative. It is based on pooling expertise analysis, fast best-practice sharing, and more standardization of technology and processes. Employees are encouraged to define the best Airbus standard for a chosen process and then transfer it across the company, taking advantage of new transnational organizational links, which is having an impact with benefits identified in improved quality and faster improvement cycles as well as increased efficiency and productivity.

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