Paris Air Show

Paris 2011: Airbus braces for struggle to keep A350XWB on track

 - June 19, 2011, 8:00 PM

As Airbus prepares to put together the first A350 XWB, the European manufacturer acknowledges the stiff task it faces to open the final assembly line (FAL) by the end of this year and to fly the aircraft within 12 months thereafter. It says significant challenges remain to start the FAL by year’s end with “an appropriate level of quality to prepare the ramp-up.”

Here at the Paris Air Show, Airbus will confirm that first delivery of the new A350 twin-aisle twinjet–which broadly addresses the same airline requirements as the much-delayed Boeing 787, and some of those at which the 777 is aimed–will be made before 2014. This week’s show also could see first official news of a more powerful engine for the largest A350 model, the -1000.

Louis Gallois, head of Airbus parent company European Aeronautic Defence and Space (EADS), told shareholders in mid-May that the A350 first delivery is still scheduled for the second half of 2013, although the timetable remains “challenging.” At the beginning of June, Airbus chief operating officer Fabrice Brégier conceded that some A350 suppliers had suffered problems with quality in preparing for full production of carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic (CFRP) composites parts to an unfamiliar high.

“This is the moment of truth, where everything that’s been designed has to be produced,” said Brégier. Airbus has learned from the A380 that assembly should not begin too early: “It’s more important to get everything right, so we’re not taking any shortcuts.”

Next steps in the program include the start of what Airbus terms pre-final assembly, where major component assembly (MCA) takes place before completed structures are shipped to the FAL. These pre-FALs at the Airbus factories in Broughton (UK), St. Nazaire (France) and Hamburg (Germany) are to start their work on the first A350 before October, followed by the beginning of system installation and equipping in the fourth quarter. Airbus told AIN this month that large parts for the A350 (MSN 001) have been made and that new CFRP technology is ready for manufacturing.

Before this week, Airbus had taken orders for 574 aircraft of all three variants–the A350-800, -900 (the first to enter service) and -1000. Last year the OEM enjoyed a net increase of 63 orders, the business comprising new or further orders from Air China, Cathay Pacific, TAM and United Airlines.

 Despite calls for higher capacity in recent months, the manufacturer has been adamant it would not stretch the A350-1000, for which definition freeze is expected by year-end. Nor has it confirmed there would be no change to this 350-passenger model, which competes against the 370-seat Boeing 777-300ER.

Airbus does acknowledge that the -1000 would benefit from higher thrust from its Rolls-Royce Trent XWB engines, albeit with consequent increased fuel consumption, larger-diameter fan (or re-worked core) and a stronger pylon. Two weeks ago, Airbus and Rolls-Royce declined to comment on an airline-sourced report that a bigger engine variant was to be developed.

In April, the manufacturer had said it would consider offering a Pratt & Whitney geared turbofan (GTF)-powered version should the U.S. engine company suggest it. Airbus chief commercial officer customers John Leahy was quoted by aviation commentator AirInsight as saying: “We certainly could consider the GTF for the A350 if Pratt & Whitney propose it. They haven’t yet [but] I know they have looked at airplanes in that category. If [P&W] wants to propose an engine, we’d certainly look at it. If [Rolls-Royce] wants to give us reasons to go exclusively with them, we’d certainly take a look at that, too.” He confirmed that the A350-1000 might require more power to increase range or payload and that he was against an increase in size.

Also in April, Thales announced it is working with Airbus to equip the A350 with its TopConnect Ka-Band communications equipment, which is designed to provide global broadband connectivity at “an affordable and consistent price,” including the potential for Internet protocol-based broadcast.

A major consideration for the European manufacturer from the beginning has been to ensure early A350 maturity once it enters service, which Airbus said is “developing well” through major bench tests now under way. “Large systems integration benches, such as ‘Iron Bird [0] and High Lift 0’ [are] already in place 18 months before first flight,” said Airbus. “Commissioning of other benches–‘Landing Gear 0’ and ‘Cabin 0’–will follow this year.”

According to Airbus, some early maturity has been achieved through a new systems strategy deployed at A350 suppliers. “We have adopted a new approach based on risk-sharing partners working in the extended enterprise environment,” said Airbus, which reports that new tools and work methods have been deployed in the past two years. It claims the strategy has been proved by the “finalization of the detail design in a collaborative environment, such as full three-dimensional [design of electrical wiring] harnesses.”

The airframer has said that current challenges for partners are focused on managing “the volume of tasks, such as assembly drawings, and on their own supply-chain management.” Risk-sharing suppliers are coached “through business operational support and resident teams.”

A valuable contribution to the A350 development has come through adoption of a “realistic human experiment analysis [RHEA] platform.” Developed by EADS Innovation Works, RHEA is said to offer “a virtual-reality space for ergonomics studies on future products and their manufacturing process.” It permits assembly and maintenance workers to train on products to which access is normally difficult and has been deployed in the Hamburg, St. Nazaire and Toulouse factories.

Airbus claims to have established “robust” foundations for the composites-based A350, with many program risks having been mitigated. Such mitigation has occasionally been at the expense of more time having been spent on, for example, the wing-root joint, damage tolerance on stringers, and electrical systems installation–but always to the benefit of maturity. The manufacturer claims that lessons drawn from previous programs have led to the following:

• A new development processes and ways of working, based on “application of strict maturity gates;

• Configuration-control processes being driven by digital mock-up (DMU) management;

• Common tools and processes enabling optimized design work in areas such as interfaces between systems and structures;

• Comprehensive demonstrator program to train teams in CFRP technology;

• Catalog-based customization to ease “head of version” development and enable ramp-up; and

• Production control through launch teams and “rigorous” alert processes.

Technical challenges with the A350 have included commissioning of very large tooling, development of optimized composites lay-up and curing processes, and nondestructive testing of complex CFRP parts. “The challenge in the coming months will be the release of [DMU] manufacturing data [50,000 assembly drawings] to enable manufacturing, structure assembly, systems installation and ‘attestation’ with the right level of quality,” reported Airbus.

Achievements this year include the delivery of A350-900 main- and nosewheel undercarriage units by Messier-Dowty and Liebherr Aerospace, respectively, and their installation for integrated systems testing in the Landing Gear 0 rig at Filton (UK). A prime testing focus is enhanced operational performance to provide improved maintenance economics. According to Messier-Dowty, increased use of titanium and use of corrosion-resistant materials and more environmentally responsible processes have contributed to weight saving and improved maintainability. Full integration testing involving all three undercarriage units is scheduled to begin in about six months’ time.

Another milestone earlier this year was opening of the Harbin Hafei Airbus Composite Manufacturing Centre joint venture in Harbin, China, to make A350 rudders and elevators, fuselage fairings and Section 19 (rear fuselage) maintenance-access doors, many of which comprise more than 50 percent composites materials.

Last month saw the cabin-systems test platform in Hamburg powered for “verification and validation” of components. Airbus claims the rig is unique: “ATA chapters such as water/waste, communications and air supply [can] be examined individually [for proper working and] can be tested for smooth interplay in a real aircraft for the first time.”

Production of the A350’s Section 11-12 structure around the flightdeck windscreen is under way at EADS’s aerostructures subsidiary Aerolia in Méaulte, France. Since May, an Airbus working party has been preparing A380 MSN-001 to act as a flying test bed for the Trent XWB later this year.

Airbus said that manufacturing of large CFRP components for A350 MSN-001 is under way at all plants and that production of parts can proceed. “Only [the] very last few open tasks will have to be completed in the [coming] weeks.”

In March, A350 partners Premium Aerotec and Spirit AeroSystems reported curing of the largest A350 fuselage panel, which had been made at their respective Nordenham (Germany) and Kinston (U.S.) sites. The 1,000-sq-ft panel, which is part of the starboard forward fuselage (Section 13-14), includes cutouts for the second right-hand passenger and lower-deck cargo doors.

Large panels were chosen because their thicknesses can be tailored locally to absorb different loads, according to Premium, which also produces A350 forward-crown panels. “This enables Airbus to optimize the airframe [for] enhanced performance, greater robustness and less weight,” said Premium. After ultrasonic inspection, trimming and drilling, the panel was joined to other forward-fuselage components. Spirit AeroSystems manufactures the center fuselage crown.

Manufacturing of lower wing covers and rear-fuselage barrels has begun at Illescas, Spain, and upper wing covers in Stade, Germany. The center wing box and keel beam are being constructed at Nantes, France.

Another element of the A350 early-maturity program involves the first “virtual” flights scheduled to begin later this year on the “Iron Bird” test rig in Toulouse. Next year the rig will be used for extensive integration testing of the electric, hydraulic and flight control systems. “Starting well ahead of the [real] first flight and entry into service is the key to delivering full in-service maturity from Day 1,” said Airbus. High-lift system tests are being conducted in Bremen, Germany. Airbus said the A350-900 flap-assembly full-scale mock-up measures 111.5 feet long by 23 feet wide.

Currently, the manufacturer is preparing for the start of pre-FALs at Broughton, Hamburg, St. Nazaire and Getafe (Spain). It plans to start all major-component assembly during mid-2011 so that the first units can be delivered to the FAL at the end of the year. The pre-FALs assemble structures such as the vertical tailfin and horizontal tailplane, wing, fuselage Sections 11/14, 16/19, and 15/21, and install systems, including ducts, electrical harnesses, pipes and tubes. The A350 FAL building has been completed and installation of jigs and tools is under way.

Airbus is determined to meet its A350 schedule by starting final assembly of the first aircraft “at the end of this year,” but remains acutely aware of the need to manage the program well. As Gallois said in mid-May, “This program continues to require our closest attention.”