Towards Toulouse

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A380 components will travel by air, land and sea to the Toulouse assembly line

After a long-running debate in which six possible final assembly sites were studied across Europe, Toulouse was chosen as the location for the final assembly line (FAL) in 2000. In reality, there was little prospect of any location other than Airbus's home town being chosen to house the assembly line of its flagship model.

To move the huge subassemblies comprising the aircraft to the Toulouse FAL, a major rethink of the whole Airbus production system was undertaken. Eventually the decision was taken to drop the existing air transportation system after it became clear that the sheer size of the components favoured surface transport using ships, barges and trucks.

Construction of the enormous A380 FAL plant on the new Aeroconstellation complex on a greenfield site adjacent to the Airbus facilities in Toulouse is now well under way. The roof of the huge 500 x 250m (1,639 x 820ft) FAL assembly hall was raised into position in February. In June Airbus will start installing the production jigs and stations. Close to the building, two new A380-size hangars are nearing completion which will house the static test airframe and first flight aircraft.

Although it missed out on the trophy of housing the assembly line, Airbus Deutschland is undertaking a major share of A380 production across its plants in Bremen, Dresden, Finkenwerder, Laupheim, Nordenham and Varel. "€650 million ($740 million) has been invested by Airbus Deutschland for A380 production at the Hamburg-Finkenwerder plant," says the division's chief executive Gerhard Puttfarcken. "We employ 8,900 people and this will increase by up to 2,000 for the A380 through to 2007, if production is on target for a rate of four per month," he adds.

The German division has responsibility for the manufacture and assembly of the forward and aft fuselage components, as well as the manufacture of the wing's trailing edge flaps (in Bremen); cabin furnishing and painting; and deliveries for European and Middle East customers. Stade, near Hamburg, continues to be the company's centre of excellence for composites production, with responsibility for the A380's carbonfibre reinforced plastic vertical tailplane (VTP).

The Finkenwerder plant is undertaking the final assembly of the fuselage subassemblies and is being treated by Airbus as a second FAL.

After overcoming local environmental opposition, a large part of the Mühlenberger Loch adjacent to the plant was reclaimed from the River Elbe, with funding by the city of Hamburg, which owns the land, to the tune of €660 million. This area will eventually house five A380 buildings: the 228 x 120m, 22,800m2 (245,425ft2) Major Component Assembly (MCA) hall, the four-bay interior furnishing hanger, two-bay paint shop, two-bay pre-flight hanger and delivery centre, as well as the roll-on/roll-off (RoRo) quay and ramp for the ship transportation system.

The first forward and aft fuselage subassemblies are due to start coming together in the MCA hall by August. The remainder of the buildings are due to be completed by mid-2005. There is already provision to double the size of each building to enable a production rate of eight A380s a month. Puttfarcken says this expansion would take "two to three years" to complete from the decision to go ahead.

A 363m extension of Finkenwerder's single 2,321m runway will be completed next year to enable it to cater for the baseline A380-800. Planning permission is now being sought for a further 587m extension to enable the heavier A380F to be handled.

Both Airbus UK plants - Broughton in North Wales and Filton near Bristol - are heavily involved in the A380's production programme, with €389 million ($447 million) having been invested for expansion. An all-new 85,000m2 building - the West Factory - has been built at Broughton, which is manufacturing about 25% of the wing, the remainder coming from Filton and sub-contract suppliers such as Saab, which is producing the mid and outer fixed leading edges. Final wing equipping is being undertaken in Toulouse with components supplied through Belairbus (leading edge), Airbus Deutschland (flaps) and Airbus France (spoilers/ailerons).

The new West Factory is due to come on line later this year and will assemble the skins, stringers, ribs and spars to form the wingbox. It will also eventually be used for wingbox assembly of other Airbus models when required.

The East Factory now includes a 12,000m2 A380 Skin Manufacturing Centre which produces 18 of the 20 aluminium alloy wing skins. It also comprises a new 22,000m2 Stringer Manufacturing Centre that will produce the bottom skin stringers for the A380 and other Airbus models.

Broughton's wing production work for the first A380 wings is well under way, with enormous 35m wing skin sections already visible on the East Factory floor. The first Airbus UK wing rib was cut at Filton in August last year, and the first wing skin was cut in December at Broughton on A340-500/600 milling machines.

Filton is manufacturing 40 metallic wing ribs per shipset as well as assembling the fixed trailing edge, while Broughton is machining eight skin panels per wing and all the bottom skin stringers, assembling the wing box and equipping it with non-moveables. Airbus España is manufacturing 48 composite ribs per shipset, with the remaining 36 split 50:50 between suppliers Aerospace Dynamics International and SPS Aerostructures.

The first A380 wing skin to be cut on the new 40m floor-level Henri-Lin‚ milling machines was produced in March. The largest, the "Bottom 3" panel, is 35m in length. The skins are machined using a "strip surface" method of material removal, rather than the traditional "facet machining", which helps optimise material distribution.

The 7 x 3m "Top 5" panel is significant in that it is machined with integrated stringers by an Ingersoll cutter, saving weight and manufacturing complexity. Once cut, the top skin panels are creep-formed to add the curvature required for the assembly process.

A giant 42m-long, 6m diameter, 5.4 megawatt autoclave, one of the largest of its type in the world, heats the panels to 150° C (300° F) at a pressure of 7.5bar (109lb/in2). During the 24-hour process, the panels are wrapped in a sealing bag and formed into the desired shape using a system of vacuum pads. The panels are "overformed" during the process, but spring back up to 80% once released from the forming fixture, retaining curvature to an accuracy of 2mm (0.08in).

Bottom skin panels, being more ductile, do not need to be formed, but are shot-peened on-site by specialist company Metal Improvement, which has expanded its Broughton facilities to cater for the A380 work. Overall cycle time for panel production is three to seven days.

Australia's Hawker de Havilland, which is responsible for production of wingtips and fences, will deliver the first set to Broughton in September. The first complete wing shipset is due to be delivered to Toulouse in April for the A380 prototype. The production rate should reach two a month by the end of next year and ramp up to four by 2006.

As with all the Airbus types, Airbus España is producing the A380's composite horizontal tailplane (HTP) and its Illescas plant, a centre of excellence for composites, is employing fibre placement technology for the first time for the production of large fuselage sections.

The Puerto Real plant near Cadiz in southern Spain is undertaking HTP final assembly, while the Getafe plant near Madrid is producing lateral HTP boxes. Airbus España is also responsible for the aft fuselage, main gear doors and dorsal fin, which are assembled at Getafe, as well as the composite rudder and three section belly fairing, built at Puerto Real. The aft fuselage sections are flown from Getafe by A300 Beluga to Finkenwerder for attachment to the rear fuselage, while the rudder is taken by road from Puerto Real to Stade for attachment to the fin.

Airbus France's plant at Meaulte supplies fuselage shells to St Nazaire, which builds the nose and centre fuselage subassemblies, the latter comprising the Nantes-built centre wingbox. St Nazaire also undertakes the attachment of the German-built forward fuselage to the locally built nose section.

Production flow

After assembly and equipment installation in the MCA in Finkenwerder, the forward and rear fuselage sections are taken by RoRo vessel to the French port of Bordeaux for the next stages of the transit. The five-day sea journey includes a stop at Mostyn docks on the Irish Sea near the Broughton plant where the wings join the ship, and at St Nazaire, where one forward fuselage is removed for attachment of a St Nazaire-built nose section, and replaced by a completed forward/ nose assembly.

On arrival in Bordeaux the components are transferred to purpose-built RoRo barges for the 12h journey along the River Garonne to Langon. The purpose-built barges have a variable ballast system to enable them to pass under the Garonne's bridges even during flood periods. The assemblies leave Langon on purpose-built trucks for the journey by road across the French countryside and through 13 villages and towns to the Toulouse FAL. This journey will be undertaken over three nights, and four parking areas and several city bypasses are being constructed along the route.

The HTP from Puerto Real starts its journey by road to the Spanish port of Cadiz, where it is loaded on to a RoRo vessel for transportation to Bordeaux. Here it joins the other components on the barge/road transport system. The Stade-built VTP travels by barge to Finkenwerder, and then by A300 Beluga to Toulouse.

Airbus vice-president, A380 programme, Charles Champion says that completion of the surface transport system is on target. "We are due to undertake a pilot run of the system in October," he says, although the RoRo vessel is not due to be delivered until March next year.

First parts for the static test airframe will begin arriving at the Toulouse FAL in April 2004, with assembly of the flying prototype starting the following month. The fatigue aircraft will be assembled separately at the EADS plant in Dresden in October 2004.

The FAL site houses eight main assembly bays, but only one side is expected to be used to maintain a maximum planned production rate of 4.4 per month by the end of 2008. "In the following year we will be able to deliver 40 to 48 aircraft per year," says head of industrial and transport, A380 FAL, Guy-Noel Dufour. The remaining four bays will be used initially for refurbishing and modifying test aircraft, and will ultimately be available for future production rate increases and assembly of new derivatives like the 650-seat -900.

For the first time on any programme, Airbus is studying final assembly of the aircraft in one main station, rather than the two currently used on the A330/A340. "We want to avoid too much handling of such big subassemblies, so the target today is to deliver all these components to one place and perform assembly in one shot." The size of the subassemblies is therefore a major challenge. The centre fuselage/wing assembly, for example, weighs around 100t.

Station 40/41 is designated as the main assembly point for the FAL, with fuselage, wings, empennage, gear and pylons all coming together in one move. Upstream stations cover the equipping of the VTP, HTP, fuselage and wing respectively.

Following assembly, the airframe moves to Station 31/30 for completion and engine installation before moving outside for pressurisation and fuel tests. Production flights then take place before the aircraft is ferried to Finkenwerder, where Airbus Deutschland will carry out furnishing, painting and cabin production test flights.

Aircraft destined for European and Middle East customers will then be processed at Finkenwerder, while aircraft destined for the rest of the world will return to Toulouse for delivery.