Airbus will start building aircraft in the U.S. with a Hamburg-on-Mobile-Bay factory
has two major development programs underway and eight years of orders to fill. So it is understandable that as concrete begins flowing on its fourth production site—the first in the U.S.—it is using a proven layout as it focuses on keeping its assembly lines humming.
“We really need the supply chain to run like clockwork,” Airbus North America President and CEO Barry Eccleston told an audience full of suppliers at Aviation Week's Civil Aircraft Manufacturing (CAM) conference here May 7-8. “We are looking for faster decision-making.”
Many at the conference were eager to add their names to a supplier list that Eccleston says already stretches across 40 states, involves 226,000 jobs and spends $13 billion annually, making Airbus the U.S.'s largest export customer. The two hottest programs are the A320—particularly as it is being reengined—and the, but production rates may go up on the . And the company's most successful widebody program, the , continues to sell surprisingly well.
The A320 final assembly line taking shape at the Brookley Aeroplex in Mobile, Ala., is “a facility for collecting parts,” Eccleston says, that replicates what the company already operates in Tianjin, China, and Hamburg, Germany. While Airbus is relying on innovation and automation in its production programs, the emphasis in Mobile is on the tried and true (AW&ST May 6/13, p. 47). “We want to be assured of a smooth startup,” he says.
Including aprons and roadways, the $600 million Brookley facilities will cover 2.3 million sq. ft. on a 116-acre site, with Airbus holding options to double its acreage. Mobile's development schedule is unchanged: initial hiring later this year, first assembly in 2015 and first delivery toin 2016. The factory is expected to require 1,000 workers at an initial capacity of four aircraft per month in 2017, although Eccleston says there is capacity to double that build rate. Those jobs will be added to the 1,000 that already exist at five U.S. Airbus sites that provide engineering, training, spares and administration.
The Mobile factory complex has been eight years in the planning, and its reach extends east and west, from Florida's Panhandle to Mississippi's Gulf Coast region. Airbus's initial intent was to assemble tankers for the U.S. Air Force. Butwrestled that contract away.
In the intervening years, Airbus has brought its A320 factory in China online and increased its public emphasis on being a global manufacturer, not just a European one. The U.S. is easily its biggest supplier, but the new outreach appears aimed at erasing any notion that only the biggest names—www.airbus.com/tools/airbusfor/suppliers., , Pratt & Whitney—need apply. The A320 production supply base is basically set, but competitive openings are as likely as with any mature program. The company says there is no mystery to becoming a supplier, and Eccleston, who described a five-step selection process, encouraged the CAM audience to register at
Airbus is addressing the industry-wide concern about maintaining quality by spending $1 billion a year, largely in hiring and training. The company is modifying the Power 8 manufacturing process it adopted in the mid-2000s to pull itself out of delays on the A380. It is now worried that its management may be too top-down.
A design-for-manufacturing revision that started in January sounds like a primer on improved processes—streamling, integration, end-to-end process management, “teamwork beyond silos”—to shorten lead times and improve quality. Airbus President and CEO Fabrice Bregier said recently, “The change goes far beyond 'boxes' and 'structures.' It is actually going to address the culture and mindset of the organization.”
The company is producing 42 A320s a month and 10 A330s. In both programs, it achieved those production marks faster than Boeing has on its respective 737 and 787 production lines. Boeing's 787 challenge in twin-aisle, long-range transports has focused most attention on Airbus's response with the A350. Ironically, the 787's introduction was accompanied by remarkable sales for the Airbus model that the new Boeing jet was designed to replace. Airbus has added 800 A330 orders to its book since the 787 was announced nine years ago.
The A350 program, which is awaiting a first flight this summer and push into full production, is slated for a ramp-up to 10 aircraft per month. But in Toulouse, there already is discussion about whether the rate should climb to 13. Additionally, the A380 build rate is slated to reach three per month in another year from the current 2.5. Noting the complexity of assembling the double-deck A380, Eccleston says it is equivalent to building eight A320s.
For comparison, Boeing's production rates, including commercial-based aircraft for military purposes, will reach about 65 per month in 2014.
Beneath all of the Power 8 upgrades is a willingness to delegate authority down to the plant-manager level. “It's a completely different coin set,” says Mark Barclay, A350 program senior vice president.
It involves a reevaluation of supplier relationships, with Airbus pushing its Tier 1 and 2 suppliers to keep closer tabs on the capacity and capabilities of the Tier 3 and Tier 4 providers who funnel parts to them. “The important thing is to have an early-warning” system of things starting to unravel, says Eccleston.
Despite the widespread criticism of Boeing's supply-chain headaches with the 787 program, he credits his competitor with offering suppliers more detailed instructions than Airbus has.
“Unfortunately, that difference in supply-chain philosophy came back to bite us” in the initial days of the A350 program, Eccleston says, with regard to Spirit AeroSystems, which makes A350 fuselage sections and wing leading edges in Kinston, N.C. Spirit's struggles with deliveries prompted a management intervention by Airbus. Eccleston says the Wichita-based company is now “back on track.”
There was no mention of Toulouse having to take over Spirit's French integration facility in Saint-Nazaire, as was speculated a few months ago.”