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Airbus battles A321neo complexity and automation hitches

Customisation complexity on the A321neo as well as a shift to new automation are among the industrial internal difficulties facing Airbus as it battles to reach ambitious full-year delivery targets.

Airbus is aiming to deliver 800 aircraft – including 18 A220s – but has encountered further obstacles on its single-aisle lines, on top of the highly-publicised powerplant issues which affected A320neo-family production.

Chief financial officer Harald Wilhelm says the ‘cabin flex’ configuration change introduced on the A321neo, including the longer-range model, “poses some challenges”.

Wilhelm says this version is a “complex aircraft” requiring a higher level of customisation.

Production of the new models alongside the standard variants has created issues, he says, and Airbus has needed to introduce measures to “separate” the two in order to “avoid disturbance” to the assembly line flow.

Airbus has also had to invest in higher levels of automation – including a fourth A320neo final assembly line at Hamburg Finkenwerder – which has “proved to be more demanding and challenging” than the airframer expected, in terms of production ramp-up, adds Wilhelm.

The hurdles have exacerbated the earlier A320neo production problems caused by technical snags particularly affecting the Pratt & Whitney PW1100G engine.

Wilhelm admits that the normally-smooth single-aisle production line has been “under fire” as a result of several revisions of planning processes driven by the various issues.

“We’ll overcome and master [them],” he insists. “We can assure you of the full attention of the commercial aircraft team.”

He believes the challenges on both the industrial side and the engine supply side – further modifications of the PW1100G engine are due next year, he says – can be overcome over the course of 2018-19, easing the path towards higher single-aisle production rates.

Airbus is continuing to plan for a hike in monthly single-aisle output to 60 aircraft next year, and is still studying rates beyond this figure.

Wilhelm says the timeframe for such an increase is yet to be determined, but that it would not occur before the next decade. “It would require some investments and a longer lead-time to get ready,” he says.

Airbus delivered 395 A320-family jets over the first nine months of the year, and 503 aircraft in total. Reaching the full-year target of 800 aircraft would involve delivering almost 100 aircraft, on average, for each of the three months in the fourth quarter.

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