Rising Production Rates Challenge Airbus

By Michael Mecham
Source: Aviation Week & Space Technology
May 20, 2013
Credit: Airbus

Airbus 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 A320 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 A350, but production rates may go up on the A380. And the company's most successful widebody program, the A330, 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 to JetBlue Airways in 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. But Boeing wrestled 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—Rockwell Collins, GE Aviation, 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 www.airbus.com/tools/airbusfor/suppliers.

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