The A350XWB is turning into an interesting test case not just for Airbus, but for the aerospace industry more broadly.
Effectively, Airbus is putting to the test the question of whether an extremely aggressive program management approach, in which program oversight is adjusted on a rolling basis as the project transitions from one phase to another, can forestall major delays.
The A350 management approach was born out of the turmoil of the A380 program, which highlighted a range of shortcomings and deep rifts within the Airbus organization. Since then, Boeing’s troubled 787 development program has provided ample additional lessons on what a prime contractor needs to pay attention to.
Airbus’s latest move to make adjustments to its engineering, manufacturing, and procurement approach on the A350 is aimed at giving managers better insight into what suppliers are up to and also whether in-house manufacturing is keeping up. It also is supposed to reflect the shift from the design to the manufacturing and assembly phase.
The measures put in place bear all the hallmark of trying to build into the A350 lessons learned from the 787, where Boeing was caught unaware about shortcomings throughout its supply chain.
The A350 program has already started suffering delays – the in-service date was recently adjusted from mid-2013 to later that year and some in industry feel more bad news is to come -- so the easy answer might be to write off what Airbus is doing as a futile undertaking. But the real test will come in the next two years, as Airbus start manufacturing and assemble the first aircraft, and then transitions to testing and production.
Skeptics quip that Airbus is effectively fighting the last war, and that the only thing it is assuring is that it will invent a whole new series of missteps. If that turns out to be true, then perhaps it is time to put to bed the idea of accelerating development cycles on major products and just learn to live with the fact that the gestation period for a major civil aircraft program is eight years or longer.