Rising Production Rates Challenge Airbus

By Michael Mecham
Source: Aviation Week & Space Technology

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.”

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