A400M final assembly line gears up for production

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A year ago, the newly opened 145,000m2 (1.56 million ft2) A400M final assembly line complex at Seville was in danger of becoming one of the biggest white elephants in aerospace. The military airlifter was running three years late, customer governments were running out of patience and Airbus Military parent EADS was running out of money. Although it seemed unlikely a project so crucial to the future of European industrial integration could collapse, threats were being made on both sides to walk away from the €20 billion ($27 billion) programme.

Today, with MSN1 more than 50h into its test-flight programme, the second prototype about to join it and the third and fourth examples under final construction, the Seville plant is beginning to resemble a moving production line as staff work 24h to produce the final three flight-test aircraft - MSN3, MSN4 and MSN6 (there is no five) - and towards the first production aircraft. Sections of MSN7 will begin arriving from Airbus Military's network of factories at the end of next year ahead of entry into service in the final quarter of 2012.

Progress may appear painfully slow at the moment, but the final assembly line is designed to drive just-in-time efficiency from a logistics system involving six EADS assembly plants and a supply chain below that which takes in A400M partners Belgium and Turkey.

Sections arrive by Airbus Beluga or by road at a special raised dock at one end of the assembly line. A Beluga nose-shaped door opens to allow the wings (Filton UK), main fuselage (Bremen, Germany), nose sections (St Nazaire, France) and vertical tailplane (Stade, Germany) to be unloaded from by jig so the in-demand transporter only has to remain on the ground for a few hours, says final assembly line head Rafael Nogueras Cebrero. The centre wing box from Nantes, France and the horizontal tailplane from Tablada in Seville come by road.

The sections are moved by overhead crane to one of three stations - station 72 for wing join-up, equipping and testing; station 60 for nose and main fuselage integration; and station 50 for the tailplanes (the stations are named under an old Airbus system determined by number of days to factory roll-out). Fuselage, empennage and wings then converge at the five-deck station 40 where MSN4 - now in sections at various stations following the delivery of the main fuselage - will shortly begin to take shape.

In the hangar next door, ground tests take place at stations 35 and 30 before the aircraft moves on to station 20 for engine installation and outfitting. Ratier-Figeac prepares its propeller blades on site and supplies them fully assembled for integration with the Europrop International TP400-D6 engines. Here, MSN3 is having its cockpit and interior systems installed and from the outside at least, resembles the finished article with engines and propellers attached. It will be handed over to the flight-test department by the middle of the year. MSN4, which like MSN3 will have "medium test instrumentation", will fly in the second half of the year.

The final test aircraft, MSN6, will begin arriving at Seville in October, starting with the wings and empennage sections, followed by the fuselage and nose by the end of the year. Over the following five years, production of the A400M will ramp up to four a year by 2013, eight in 2014 and eventually to 2.5 a month by 2016. Final production schedules are likely to be affected by ongoing negotiations with the seven European customers to possibly defer or reduce the total 180 aircraft on order, something any new export commitments could help mitigate.