Airbus’s Automated Future Features Robotics

By Guy Norris
Source: Aviation Week & Space Technology
May 06, 2013
Credit: Airbus

Airbus has frequently played the technology card in its battle for market share and now, having achieved parity with Boeing, the company is turning to advanced manufacturing technology to ensure it can deliver the fruits of its success.

The focus on development of automated processes for a “future factory” concept comes as Airbus continues to accelerate delivery rates to record levels. Airbus currently delivers almost 55 aircraft every month, equal to the total A300 deliveries over the first five years of the company's existence. Since 2000, commercial deliveries have grown by 60% and, with a doubling of the order backlog over the past decade to around 4,950, the company has eight years worth of production already on the books.

Jens Gralfs, Airbus operations vice president of overall physical design, says that as the rate continues to grow across multiple models “we are facing strong challenges in how to keep the aircraft productionized.” Each of the models represents a different set of issues, whether it is accelerating deliveries of the single-aisle A320 family as it transitions to the New Engine Option (NEO), ramping up the new A350 or improving the sophisticated double-deck A380 assembly process.

“The single-aisle is at a rate of 42 aircraft per month, which is effectively one every seven hours,” says Gralfs. He adds that production capacity for the A320 family will be increased by another four per month with the addition of the Mobile, Ala., assembly line. Production of the first aircraft is due to begin there in February 2015, with deliveries set to begin in January 2016. The A380 rate is due to increase from 2.5 to 3 per month and “in terms of complexity, it is in another dimension.”

At the same time, Airbus continues to accelerate the A330, which reached an all-time-high rate of 10 per month earlier this year. The target is 11 per month, says Gralfs, who adds that the A330's successor, the A350, is eventually expected to be produced at up to 13 per month. Overall, Airbus delivered 588 aircraft in 2012, which equates to a rate of 49 per month.

All this contrasts dramatically with the rates achieved early in the history of Airbus when it used conventional methods to produce the A300 at a maximum rate of four per month in the 1970s and 1980s. “At that time, no one thought it was possible to make more than four per month. There was zero automation, lots of fixed tooling and no flexibility. The design was 100% focused on the performance of the aircraft and not at all on manufacturing considerations. Frankly, the attitude then was 'who cares about manufacturing?'”

Even in the case of the A320, which entered production in 1988, design considerations for assembly and industrialization “was a secondary topic,” noted Gralfs, who was speaking at the recent Society of Mechanical Engineers AeroDef manufacturing conference in California. The A380, on the other hand, was “from Day One designed for performance and industrialization. It was the first Airbus aircraft designed with thoughts of both considerations at the same level. It also incorporated lean manufacturing principles from the start. This is important because what is not designed for lean is hard to make lean afterward.”

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