The Airbus A380 arrived to a huge fanfare in 2007 and is earning revenue for five of its launch customers. But frustratingly for the company, the same cannot be said for Airbus, which more than five years after building the first A380 is still battling to overcome costly production problems that have blighted the programme since the start.
Last year, Airbus handed over just 10 A380s - two fewer than in 2008 and well below its target of 18 - as the ongoing production issues were amplified by delivery deferrals instigated by customers. Problems have rumbled on despite several drives to sharpen up processes, and by the beginning of this year Airbus management had clearly run out of patience.
Louis Gallois, boss of parent EADS, warned that A380 production costs were "still significantly above expectations" while Airbus chief executive Tom Enders pointed out that the airframer had still not "come to grips with this complex aircraft" and that it would remain a "financial liability for years to come".
But the signs are good that initiatives implemented last year to address some of the fundamental problems are at last bearing fruit. Key performance indicators, such as the level of outstanding work carried downstream to the assembly lines, show a dramatically improved situation. So Airbus is now publicly confident that it can ship at least 20 A380s this year as output in Toulouse heads towards stabilising at three a month by early 2012.
The improved processes may also be good news financially, with EADS chief financial officer Hans-Peter Ring recently stating that A380 production should begin to break even by around 2015 on a "per year" basis. In the current US dollar environment, he says, EADS "could be in a situation...by the middle of the decade" where the A380 is "no longer weighing" on the company.
The A380's now legendary production delays first came to light shortly after the first flight in April 2005. A key element of the problem - issues in the design of the multitude of wiring harnesses that equip each A380 - was blamed on the over-reliance on virtual design tools - specifically the three-dimensional digital mock-up (DMU) that was used extensively for the first time by Airbus on the superjumbo. And it did not help that there was incompatibility in the design tools being used by different divisions within Airbus. (Significantly, Airbus has reintroduced the concept of having a physical mock-up on the A350, to ensure it does not see a repeat of the A380 dramas.)
As the then Airbus boss Christian Streiff explained in 2006 when announcing one of several A380 production delays: "Quite simply, the wiring harness installation design package in the forward and rear fuselage could not keep pace with the rest of the aircraft programme."
While the production of all A380s was affected by the fundamental problems, these were particularly damaging to each customer "head of version" - ie the first edition of cabin specification.
In the first three years of deliveries Airbus has had to deal with six of these - one each for Air France, Lufthansa, Qantas and Singapore Airlines, and two for Emirates. The Dubai airline has taken A380s equipped with two different cabin layouts seating either 489 or 517 passengers - the latter having additional seats on the main deck in place of the crew rest compartments.
So Airbus reinvented its A380 production process while in parallel rebuilding by hand airframes in Toulouse that had already been assembled. Design of the wiring looms has always been the responsibility of Airbus's cabin centre of excellence in Hamburg, which is also where installation in the forward and rear fuselage sections takes place during the equipping process in the major component assembly (MCA) hall.
The hall has the politically correct label of "FAL1" (or final assembly line one) with Toulouse - which is the A380's proper final assembly line - being "FAL2".
Key parts of the changes included "updating and harmonising" 3D design tools as well as the implementation of new management and training procedures. All Hamburg's A380 functions were consolidated under the full responsibility of a single manager, Rudiger Fuchs (who was subsequently replaced in 2008 by former A380 programme manager Mario Heinen).
To deal with the production problems, thousands of workers from other plants - mainly Hamburg - had to relocate to the Toulouse assembly line to undertake out-of-sequence work and modifications that should have been completed before the sections were transported.
Meanwhile, progress with the reinvented production process saw the creation of what Airbus dubbed "Wave 2" A380s incorporating redesigned electrical harnesses. But the signs were not good when the first Wave 2 aircraft (MSN026) reached the power-on milestone four months late, in April 2008. Airbus said at the time that it had not rushed the build effort as it did not want a repeat of the earlier problems.
But it seemed that every time Airbus thought it had the issues beaten, the programme would run into more trouble and the delays persisted. The result was that the 2009 output target, which at one point was expected to be more than 20 aircraft, was constantly revised downwards to the 10 deliveries eventually achieved.
Although Airbus remained bullish in the early part of last year that the issues were behind it, by the time MSN026 was finally delivered to its customer, Qantas, in August 2009, it was evident that Wave 2 had not delivered the hoped-for "silver bullet".
"Until MSN026 was delivered, we didn't see the full picture in terms of what would be the rework we needed to do on this aircraft," says A380 programme manager Alain Flourens. "We realised that a significant amount of additional work was needed to update the DMUs, the design activity and the following manufacturing and engineering activities."
The problems that arose from Wave 2 production process were tackled in various ways, he says. "We enforced a very strict quality gate around the DMU, starting from the first step at the release of drawings for production - which means we have more coming out right first-time. We have been through this process for all the heads of versions after MSN026."
The result of this initiative upstream of production has been a very good improvement in quality since the beginning of 2010. "The quality gate at each stage of the DMU is mainly 'green' now, whereas in the past they were more 'amber' or 'red'," says Flourens.
The colour defines the acceptable level of quality at each stage, so "green means we can proceed to the next step of the engineering process with no risk".
This has seen the production drawing backlog decline by four-fifths and level of outstanding work being undertaken in both "FAL1" and "FAL2" halved over the course of 2009 (see graphic). The out-of-sequence work has been reduced by a factor of seven since the beginning of 2007.
"This translates immediately to the number of people working on the final assembly lines and the lead time," says Flourens.
He estimates that the more efficient production process has reduced the A380's lead time by around 40% over the past 12 months, while over the same period the number of displaced workers in Toulouse has been roughly halved to around 1,000.
The improvement in the quality of the DMU has also been helped by learning curve as more heads of version are completed. "Our knowhow has been increased," says Flourens.
Although the level of outstanding work is acceptable for the current rate of two A380s a month, Flourens says Airbus will continue to work to reduce it further as output ramps up three a month over the next year. The number of displaced workers will also be progressively reduced during 2010-11 in line with the production ramp-up.
While the DMU quality control had a dramatic improvement in 2009, late last year Airbus took further steps to secure the production process of its flagship programme with an effort to "change the mindset" of its teams, which chief operating officer Fabrice Bregier dubbed "stop and fix".
Implemented after further analysis of the production set-up, Flourens says this is a specific quality gate designed to establish whether the "deliverable, which could be engineering or physical", is achievable. "The process means that if you are not at the correct level, you raise the alarm and the whole team has to work around to find a solution as quickly as possible."
He says the problem remains where it is in the production or design process until fixed, whereas under the old system unresolved issues would move on to the next stage, thereby adding to the mountain of outstanding work.
Airbus has worked to tighten up the A380's delivery process. Picture: Airbus
"This is a change of culture - both for the workers on the shop floor and in engineering - putting a lot of emphasis on doing it right first-time" rather than on keeping the production process moving and tackling the problem later, says Flourens.
Another change has been to do away with the sequential process and better integrate different parts of the organisation to help speed the reaction time to problems as they arise. "During assembly, we've organised regular visits to the aircraft by multifunctional teams comprising design and manufacturing engineering, quality and production people, to have a common vision," says Flourens, This has helped drive down the resolution time for queries substantially.
The much improved state of the assembly process is shown by the fact that the fuselage sections for latest A380 to arrive in Toulouse left Hamburg "closed and dark", meaning that all work was completed and they were ready to achieve the "M2" power-on status without additional modifications on the assembly line, says Flourens.
While some may argue that Airbus should have been quicker to address what appear to be basic production issues, Flourens points out that a key part of understanding how to tackle the over-complexity has come through experience: "As we drain the water inside the pool, we can now see different rocks that were hidden below the waterline."
The next two new A380 customers, Korean Air and China Southern Airlines, are due to receive their first aircraft in 2011. Flourens says that "the basics are now there" to ensure that the revised processes make the production of these heads of version much smoother, ensuring that the aircraft are delivered on schedule.
And even this final process has been the subject of an improvement effort, with the size and complexity of the A380 making customer acceptance a long-winded affair. "At the beginning it was a two-week process and we've got it down to eight days - and to five with some customers, which is a good target for such a big aircraft," says Flourens. "But it is still longer for a head of version."
So after five years of what Emirates boss Tim Clark described as "pulling teeth" for Airbus, the light finally appears to be insight at the end of the tunnel. And hopefully some good will come out of all the pain for Airbus's next big airliner programme, says Flourens: "We have transferred as much as we could of what we learned the hard way on the A380, onto the A350."
Subassemblies are now leaving the Hamburg factory in a good state of completion. Picture: Airbus