Some 1,500 employees turned up to work at Filton, Bristol last week to make wing components for Airbus, just as they did before the holiday. The buildings, tools, technologies and products were the same, but they no longer worked for Airbus. GKN, the UK engineering group already embedded in the projects, had bought their operation. They'd been outsourced.

Its acquisition of the production operation - design and testing at Filton remains firmly in Airbus hands - marked a red-letter day for GKN, turning it into a top-rank tier 1 supplier and clearing the path for a strategic push to be a dominant player in the highly composite future of civil and military aerospace.

For Airbus, too, the transition was significant, marking the completion of an aerostructures strategy that called for divestment of non-core activities and sites to a network of key suppliers that would allow Airbus to focus on being an aircraft architect and integrator.

But this central aspect of Airbus's Power8 cost-cutting plan hadn't, apart from at Filton, gone to plan. The GKN-Filton deal was to have been matched by sales of French and German manufacturing sites, but talks with Latécoère and MT Aerospace fell foul of a deteriorating economy, and possibly French-German politics. Instead, Airbus opted to spin off the sites into two wholly owned subsidiaries, Aerolia in France and Aerotec in Germany.

So, for Airbus, it may be a disappointment compared to the palpable buzz at GKN. Creating Aerolia and Aerotec hardly looks like saving money, and doesn't spread Airbus's risk in developing the A350 or other models.

In making the best of a setback, however, Airbus may have created a golden opportunity. The Power8 site sell-offs were always going to be a step between the traditional all-under-one-roof airframer model and Boeing's aggressive - and difficult - outsourcing of critical 787 design and production functions to partners.

Now Airbus can test its own outsourcing model through its GKN-Filton relationship. It can also try what might be called the Bombardier model. Bombardier sites in Canada, at the former Learjet operation in Wichita and the former Shorts works in Belfast, compete on price and quality with each other - and with outside suppliers - for work on Bombardier programmes. This internal market arguably results in a stronger, more efficient group.

The same dynamic could be fostered at Airbus and bury its traditional - and absurd - model of dividing programmes into workshare packages doled out to production sites in politically determined proportions.

If that's going to work, management at Aerolia and Aerotec will have to take a cue from GKN Aerospace boss Marcus Bryson. He's calling for a culture change at Filton - it's a business now, not a cost centre.

Airbus hopes for lift from British engineering experiment

Source: Flight International