To the casual observer, it looked like just another chunk of concrete apron on Airbus’s sprawling production complex at Blagnac Airport outside Toulouse. Nestled between giant hangars and the Airbus outdoor museum with its graffiti-covered airplanes, Airbus is spending approximately $184 million to build the production line for its new A350XWB airliner. The new facility is expected to be fully operational during the third quarter of 2010.
The construction of this new addition to the Airbus empire is well under way, and back in January at the ground-breaking ceremony for the new 795,000-sq-ft A350 plant, Airbus chief operating officer Fabrice Brégier, told reporters that the company was already “ramping up to the assembly of the first aircraft.” The project involves significant investment in the building itself, as well as in the tooling and development of the aircraft’s components.
A350 program head Didier Evrard added that before January 2010 the European airframer will have parts of the A350 aircraft in factories ready for assembly for the first aircraft. Back in December 2008, Airbus had “passed Main Gate 5,” which Evrard said was a key program milestone for the A350 marking the freezing of the airframe design. Airbus is now involved in the detailed design of the aircraft’s components.
The A350 continues the Airbus philosophy–which some would say is politically motivated–of spreading the aircraft’s production across Europe and transporting the components to Toulouse for final assembly. The move to use more composite materials for more than 50 percent of the airframe will result in some production challenges for Airbus factories, and especially at its UK wing factory in north Wales which has not previously manufactured composites.
The A350’s production network will spread the logistical tentacles of Airbus even further. The company is already used to producing aircraft components at factories across Europe and then delivering components by bulbous Airbus A300-600ST Beluga freighters to the final assembly line at Blagnac. The proportion of the company’s airliners which have received components from beyond Blagnac have steadily increased over Airbus’s 40-year history and half of the A350 will be constructed by external suppliers.
On the factory floor, Airbus has taken several measures to ensure that the aircraft can be assembled in the shortest possible time. For example, once the main fuselage arrives at Blagnac, the seating and interior furnishings are installed at the start of the assembly line while other components are being fitted to the aircraft.
Essentially, Airbus is requiring its suppliers to complete their subassemblies to the fullest extent possible before they are sent to Toulouse. The rationale is simple: the more work that can be performed at the local factory, the less time is consumed at final assembly, and the company envisions the assembly time for an A350 to be around 10 weeks.
The spread of the A350 subassembly production is complex. In France, the aircraft’s nose will be built at the Aerolia plant in Méaulte in the north of the country; and the winglets and keel beam at the Airbus plant in Nantes on the Atlantic coast. The nearby Airbus plant at St. Nazaire will perform the nose and forward fuselage assembly, while the Spirit AeroSystems plant there will perform the assembly of the fuselage shells.
In Germany, Premium Aerotech at Nordenham constructs, assembles and equips the forward fuselage, while the Airbus factories at Hamburg and Stade, respectively, will perform the aft fuselage construction and assembly, and wing cover manufacturing. The factory at Stade will also equip and assemble the vertical tailplane, and construct the upper and lower aft fuselage shells.
GKN Aerospace at Filton in southwestern England and the Airbus factory at Broughton in north Wales will assemble the wings and build the wing’s fixed trailing edges. Finally, Airbus’s facilities at Getafe near the Spanish capital Madrid will equip and construct the horizontal tailplane, while the company’s facility at Illescas will undertake the construction of the composite wing covers. For the first time, suppliers in the U.S. will be involved in the project, with Spirit AeroSystems of Kinston, North Carolina, building the front wing spars and fuselage shells.
Once these subassemblies are delivered to Blagnac, they are transported the short distance from Airbus’s logistics center to the new A350 assembly building. The fuselage, empennage and wings will be mated in the A350 assembly building, where the installation of the cabin will also take place.
The assembled airframe will then be transported to the nearby A330 and A340 assembly line. At this facility, the A350 will undergo ground testing while the final stages of the cabin installation are completed and the engines are installed. The aircraft will complete testing and then be moved to the delivery center.