Airbus’ manufacturing complex, which builds the wings for all its airplanes and employs about 6,000 people, is preparing for big adjustments as production rates of the giant double-decker A380 and the single-aisle A320 jet family swing in opposite directions.

Share story

BROUGHTON, Wales — Airbus’ manufacturing complex here, which builds the wings for all its airplanes and employs about 6,000 people, is preparing for big adjustments as production rates of the giant double-decker A380 and the single-aisle A320 jet family swing in opposite directions.

The European jet maker announced in July it will slow manufacturing of the A380 from today’s rate of 30 airplanes per year to 20 next year and then just one per month in 2018.

Meanwhile its single-aisle A320 jet family, which has booked off-the-charts sales, is scheduled to increase production at four assembly plants — including Mobile, Ala. — from today’s 46 jets per month to 50 a month next year and 60 a month by mid-2019.

The A350 jet program is also increasing its rate from eight airplanes per month now to 13 per month by the end of 2018.

At Broughton, some 500 to 600 mechanics and engineers directly build the massive A380 wings, compared with about 800 building the composite wings of the new A350 and about 1,600 churning out wings for the A320 and A330 jets.

On a recent tour of the site, Airbus spokesman Robert Gage said the plane maker will shuffle Broughton workers from the A380 to the A350 and A320 programs to avoid job losses.

A320 Step Change

The A320 wings are assembled in four-story fixed jigs, with mechanics climbing up and down the fixture to drill and fasten them together.

When the basic wing structure comes out of the jig, it’s laid flat on a trolley and progresses through 12 stations, where it’s equipped with movable surfaces and fuel, electrical and hydraulic systems are installed and tested.

In the past, when Airbus needed to ramp up A320 wing production, it simply added one more replica of the existing wing-assembly fixtures, which now number 20.

But with the steep ramp-up ahead, Airbus is implementing a $62 million makeover of the A320 wing assembly line, dubbed “Step Change,” that it bills as part of its “Factory of the Future” goal of increased automation.

In a new, simplified assembly process, the wings will be suspended vertically in one-story jigs as they move along a pulse line from station to station.

In an installation designed by German firm Broetje, much of the drilling and fastening will be automated.

On a visit in July, construction of the new pulse line was well under way inside the A320 assembly building.

To make room for the construction, finishing of the assembled wings has moved temporarily to two smaller hangars, including a semicircular Quonset hut-style building originally erected during World War II.

And in one corner of the nearby A380 assembly building, dozens of A320 upper and lower wing skins were arrayed on their edges on a recent visit, stored there temporarily during the “Step Change” construction.

The first of the new jigs is to come online this month and full rate capability is expected in summer 2018.

That’ll be 56 pairs of A320 wings per month from Broughton, with four pairs of wings per month built in Tianjin, China.

Mukilteo ties

The A380 wing-assembly factory might as well be a showroom for Electroimpact, the Mukilteo engineering company that designed much of the facility and supplied the huge automated machines that make these giant wings — 138 feet long, 26 feet wide and 6.6 feet deep.

Before the highly curved wing is assembled, the five panels making up each upper and lower wing skin must be stitched together.

Ten big LVER (Low Voltage Electromagnetic Riveting) machines supplied by Electroimpact do the stitching and fasten stiffening rods called stringers to the wing skins.

And when the skins are ready, these are assembled along with the long spars and ribs to make the basic wing structure in one of four Electroimpact jigs, each one four stories tall and with a left and right side for a pair of wings.

Within those big jigs, two Electroimpact automated drilling machines do critical pieces of the wing assembly.

One rides on rails along the four-story structure of the jig, moving from floor to floor, wing surface to wing surface, and jig to jig, constantly working but moving aside when needed to allow mechanics access as they do hand drilling and other work.

The other is used to drill heavy-duty holes around the plane’s “gear rib,” a reinforcement for the landing gear.

The holes are as large as an inch in diameter and penetrate through 4 inches of stacked metals.

Despite the A380’s drooping sales and the prospect ahead of a much lower production rate, the workers still get a charge from building the largest commercial airliner in the world.

“We’re all positive about the A380. It’s such a wonderful aircraft. There’s a great sense of pride,” said Martin Cooper, health and safety manager on the program.

Beluga busy

Despite the A380 slump, the increasing pace of production on the other Airbus planes means Broughton’s year-old load/unload station for the Airbus Beluga transport airplane must ramp up flights to match.

According to Andy Owen, who coordinates the Beluga station, a few years ago the five-airplane fleet was flying 6,000 flight hours a year.

Next year, the fleet will reach 10,000 flight hours to accommodate the A350 and A320 rate ramp-ups, he said.

In addition, Airbus is building a fleet of five new larger transport planes.

The so-called Beluga XL, scheduled to begin operations in 2019, will have an airframe built on the wider fuselage of an A330 instead of the A300 base of the current Belugas.

That will enable the plane to carry a pair of the large A350 wings, one above the other, in a single trip, rather than the single wing carried by the current Beluga.