October 29, 2012
Credit: Jens Flottau/AWST
Jens Flottau Toulouse
The future of Airbus is riding to a large extent on the success of its new A350 widebody, designed to compete head-to-head with Boeing's hugely popular 787 and 777. And while final assembly is underway at last, the European airframer still faces major challenges before the first jet is delivered in 2014—and even before first flight next year.
Last week, Airbus gathered suppliers and customers here for the official opening of the A350 final assembly line in what is now called the Roger Beteille building. The facility will be used initially for the full final assembly process of the aircraft, until another hangar across the tarmac is added in 2014 to expand capacity. Beteille, 91, was one of the founding fathers of Airbus in the late 1960s and a key figure behind the development of the original A300 and, more than a decade later, the introduction of fly-by-wire technology for the A320.
But marking this corporate history was hardly the primary motivation behind the event: Airbus is trying to reassure suppliers and customers that the A350 remains on track for first flight in the summer of 2013—and on time for delivery in the second half of 2014. The aircraft manufacturer officially opened the A350 final assembly line alongside a supplier conference. “Our message is: The program is on plan and the upcoming major milestones will be on plan, too,” Chief Operating Officer Guenther Butschek said.
Suppliers have noted with concern two issues surrounding the program: Airbus's decision to introduce weight improvements and changes in several batches, which leads to extra work and some performance shortfalls for early models, and the recent wing-drilling troubles that have led to delays for later aircraft, although not for MSN1. A350 program chief Didier Evrard told suppliers that introducing the aircraft in batches is a normal process.
Some issues that have historically caused trouble in programs such as the A340-600 or the A380 will only become relevant next year. Cabin installation is one such area, and suppliers are already scrambling to make specification changes on time to meet targets mostly related to weight reduction.
Airbus has attached the wings to the first A350 fuselage, MSN5000, which will be used as the static test aircraft. It is currently placed in one of the two Stations 40 that are dedicated to wing-body-joining work. The fuselage of MSN1 is adjacent to it, at Station 50. One of the wings for MSN1 has arrived and is in the final assembly hangar next to the fuselage. The other is expected to arrive early this week.
According to Evrard, Airbus has built five wings using a manual process since it discovered that software glitches in the automatic process were causing delays. Four of those wings were intended for MSN5000 and MSN1. A fifth wing is at IABG for initial load-testing ahead of the actual fatigue tests here. Evrard says the software issues caused the first automatic drilling to take around 2-3 months per wing, when it was supposed to have lasted only one month. But for MSN3, the next aircraft in the assembly process, the automatic drilling is “back on target” and Airbus has progressively reduced the manual work.