Four years and four months before Donald Trump rode a wave of industrial nationalism to the White House, Airbus decided to plant a factory in Mobile, Alabama, to deliver A320-family aircraft to US customers. In retrospect, that fateful announcement looks, well, prescient.
“Prescient is a good descriptor. Brilliant is another one,” laughs Allan McArtor, chairman and chief executive of Airbus Americas and the architect of the strategy that brought the largely European manufacturer to the US Gulf Coast.
He has got a point. US companies managing global supply chains now dread the unexpected presidential tweet demanding the return of outsourced, skilled factory jobs to American soil. As a foreign company, Airbus can point to its operations in Mobile as a prime example of foreign direct investment in the American economy, supporting American customers with an American-assembled product.
“It’s okay to be a tourist, but to be a resident means even more,” McArtor says.
To drive the point home, Airbus staged a dramatic event in late November 2016, flying a newly assembled A321 for Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines over the Iron Bowl; an American football game pitting Alabama’s two largest college football teams against each other in front of nearly 102,000 supporters.
Airbus’s growth in southern Alabama has unfolded almost exactly as chief executive Fabrice Brégier described in July 2012. Mobile’s Hangar 9, a replica of the A320 family final assembly halls in Hamburg, delivered the first A321 to American customer JetBlue last April. In total, Airbus delivered 17 A321s to four customers – also including American and Spirit – in 2016, plus two more in January this year, says Daryl Taylor, vice-president and general manager of its US manufacturing facility.
The Mobile site is on track to deliver three A320-family aircraft by mid-year and four per month by the end of the year, Taylor says. Airbus has kept to the schedule, despite encountering a few surprises. In 2012, for example, the company's planners assumed the site would be devoted to delivering a steady flow of A320s with standard cabins. Since opening two years ago, however, the final assembly line has delivered only A321s. The American clientele also have demanded more complex cabins, including first-class products introduced on JetBlue and Delta A321s, Taylor says.
Mobile's staff have had a lot of help. Not least, over 30 years Airbus has delivered more than 7,500 A320-family aircraft. The opening of a final assembly line in Tianjin, China, also provided a blueprint. But Airbus was careful not to insert risk into the equation. The assembly process implemented in Mobile is nearly an exact replica of the manufacturer’s proven A320 assembly sites. The one exception, Taylor explains, is a different automated drilling machine used at the wing-to-body join station in Mobile, but even that technology was proved first on the A350 line.
In America, Airbus executives are already plotting for the next steps for the Mobile site. There is still discussion about expanding the monthly production rate beyond four, which the US market could support, McArtor says. In the near term, discussions are focused on how to expand the statement of work within the planned production rates in Mobile. Some US-built components are now shipped to major component assembly sites in Europe before being moved back across the Atlantic for final assembly in Mobile. In some cases, it may be simpler to ship American-made parts direct to Mobile.
Airbus Americas is also interested in claiming more work from the major component assembly sites in Europe. Unlike Boeing, which has distributed component assembly but kept a firm grip on final assembly, Airbus has been willing to do the opposite, allowing final assembly to disperse globally but keeping assembly of the major sections in Europe. But that could start to change.
“We’ve taken a look at how do we diversify our component assembly,” McArtor says. “It naturally has grown up around a UK, Germany, France, Spain-based manufacturing capability, but there’s no reason we can’t look at other areas.”
Source: Flight International