During the past decade, Alabama has turned itself into a hotbed of automotive manufacturing by attracting assembly plants from Daimler, Honda, Hyundai and Toyota. Now, the “heart of Dixie” hopes to also become a major player in the aerospace sector.
That dream became a reality in September, when Airbus SAS opened an assembly line in Mobile. It is the first new manufacturer of large commercial aircraft in the United States in four decades.
The state-of-the-art facility is producing the company’s most popular airplane, the single-aisle A320. In fact, the A320 family, which includes the A318, A319 and A321 variants, is one of the world’s best-selling commercial aircraft (Boeing claims that it has delivered almost 2,000 more copies of its popular 737 jetliner vs. Airbus).
The versatile, twin-engine plane is used by hundreds of airlines for both short-haul and intercontinental routes. Airbus claims that an A320 takes off or lands somewhere in the world every 2 seconds.
But, the company is not resting on its laurels. Airbus recently launched the A320neo (new engine option), which is available in several configurations ranging from 125 to 240 seats.
When it takes to the sky this year, the new aircraft will use more than 95 percent of the same airframe components as the conventional A320. But, thanks to next-generation engines being produced by Pratt & Whitney, the A320neo boasts a 20 percent fuel burn improvement per seat and an additional flight distance of 500 nautical miles.
Airbus has a huge backlog of orders for the fuel-saving aircraft. More than 75 airlines have purchased more than 4,300 A320neos, which translates into a 60 percent share of the market. That’s on top of a backlog of more than 1,200 conventional A320s.
The new plant in Mobile will help Airbus tackle that production challenge. It is modeled after three “sister” plants that also build A320 aircraft in Hamburg, Germany; Tianjin, China; and Toulouse, France. Most of the aircraft assembled in Mobile will be delivered to customers in North America, including American, Delta and United airlines.
Overall, 49 of the first 50 aircraft manufactured in Alabama will be A321s, which is the longest-fuselage variant. The first aircraft is scheduled to be delivered to JetBlue Airways this spring. By the end of next year, the $600 million facility will be producing four aircraft per month.
“[This factory] is an important step forward in Airbus’ strategy, strengthening our position as a leader and competitor in all of our key markets,” says Fabrice Bregier, president and CEO of Airbus. “It enables us to grow our already significant presence in America—the largest single-aisle aircraft market in the world—and to be closer to our U.S. customers and key supplier partners.
“At the same time, the expanded industrial capacity gives us more flexibility to increase production across Airbus to meet global demand,” adds Bregier. “The U.S. facility is good news for the overall Airbus enterprise, as this greater production capacity creates global growth opportunities across the company and throughout our supply chain.”
Airbus also operates a helicopter assembly plant in Columbus, MS, which opened in 2004. The 325,000-square-foot facility builds the AS350 AStar commercial helicopter and the U.S. Army’s UH-72A Lakota light utility helicopter.
The new Airbus factory is located on the grounds of the Mobile Aeroplex, which has been redeveloped from a former military base. Between 1940 and 1969, the waterfront land was home to Brookley Air Force Base.
The site, which boasts a 10,000-foot-long runway, was originally selected to house a completion center for A330 aerial tankers, if the aircraft was selected by the U.S. Air Force. Airbus also proposed to build commercial A330 freighters at the site. But, those plans changed in 2011, when Boeing received the controversial contract.
One of the things that attracted Airbus to the site is its strategic location adjacent to a deepwater port. That simplifies the transportation of oversize aircraft components to the plant, eliminating the need for long trips over rail or road.
Major subassemblies are loaded onto a cargo ship in Hamburg for the 20-day journey to the Port of Mobile, which is located just three miles from the new factory. Fuselages and wings are transported to the new plant by truck.
The components are assembled at different Airbus factories in Europe. The front fuselage, including the cockpit, is built in France. The wings are produced in England. The rear fuselage is built in Germany, and the vertical tail plane is made in Spain.
“Coordinating all the logistics and complexity is a huge challenge,” says Ulrich Weber, vice president and general manager of Airbus Mobile. “Everything must come together at the same time to produce an aircraft.
“The Mobile plant incorporates all the best ideas from our factories in China, France and Germany,” adds Weber. “We examined lessons learned elsewhere and applied them to be more efficient here in the United States. For instance, we incorporated some ideas from the A350 program, including new ways of putting aircraft together with advanced technologies and production methods.”
One new assembly process is used to attach the wings to the fuselage of the A320. The Mobile plant features a state-of-the-art automatic drilling machine. It replaces a manual process used at other Airbus factories to drill more than 2,000 holes.
“We have arranged tooling and jigs in an optimal way to minimize distances between workstations,” explains Weber. “The latest ergonomic improvements have been considered to achieve the highest health and safety standard for assemblers.
“Sequenced kitting is used to ensure just-in-time delivery of fasteners and other parts,” says Weber. “We also use paperless work instructions throughout the assembly line.”
The 116-acre complex features several buildings, including offices, a transshipment hangar, a paint shop, a gauging hangar, a final phase hangar and a customer delivery center.
However, the largest building in Mobile is the 209,917-square-foot final assembly line (FAL), which can accommodate five aircraft at a time. It is a carbon copy of Hangar 9 at the Airbus factory in Hamburg.
Airbus engineers worked with systems integrator Comau Aerospace to develop assembly and test stations at the Mobile plant, including all jigs and tools.
“The assembly and test stations include the large steel fixtures that surround and hold the aircraft sections as they are assembled, allow [operators] to access the assemblies, and house the tooling and automatic drilling units used to put the aircraft together,” says Michel Pages, program manager at Comau LLC.
Assembly Line Layout
The 836-foot long FAL is divided into four workstations. The first area, known as Station 41, is where the forward and aft sections of the fuselage are joined together. The assembly process requires approximately 3,000 rivets, which are manually installed with air tools.
“This is also where we install ‘monuments,’ such as galleys and lavatories,” says Weber. “These items are too big to fit through an aircraft door, so we can’t install them after the entire fuselage is assembled.”
Station 40 is where the wings and the fuselage are joined. Assemblers on a parallel line attach winglets before the wings are joined with the fuselage. Landing gear and engine pylons are also installed here.
“All electrical and hydraulic systems are installed and connected at this workstation,” notes Weber. “And, we add power to the aircraft here so that we can begin to perform various functional tests.”
At Station 35, horizontal and vertical tail planes are attached to the fuselage. Auxiliary power units are installed and full power up of the aircraft occurs. The nose cone and radome are also installed.
“We also start installing the interior of the cabin, such as sidewall panels and linings, at this workstation,” explains Weber. “And, we furnish the cockpit.”
The final station inside the FAL is called the dock. That’s where lighting, in-flight entertainment and cabin pressurization systems are installed and tested.
“Final cabin install occurs here, including carpeting, overhead storage bins, seats and partitions,” says Weber. “Engineers also perform extensive testing of all cabin systems and landing gear.”
The FAL workstation numbering system does not follow chronological order, because various steps in the production process have been streamlined.
“When we started building the A320 several decades ago, we had more stations in between,” says Weber. “But, over the years, as we became more efficient and reshuffled work, we eliminated some of the stations. Originally, the system referred to the number of days prior to delivery.”
Overhead travelling cranes play a key role in the entire assembly process. Six cranes in the FAL operate in a series of three assembly zones.
In zone 1, three cranes support the fuselage assembly operation. The double-girder suspension cranes are 218-feet long and travel on a common crane runway. Installed on each of the crane girders is a main trolley, which accommodates four 6-ton hoist units that operate on two traversing bridges.
“Thanks to the precise control of 12 motion axes per crane, Airbus [can] position the individual fuselage sections that measure 13-feet in diameter with an extremely high level of accuracy,” claims Lutz Dowy, vice president of global product management and process cranes at Terex Material Handling & Port Solutions Corp. “To ensure that the fuselage segments are gently picked up, the cranes [are] equipped with a semiautomatic rope tensioning system.
“Once the four hoist units have each lifted a specified load of 300 kilograms, they continue to lift the suspended payload in a synchronized motion to avoid any flexing of the sensitive aircraft components,” adds Dowy.
After all fuselage segments have been assembled, the cranes transport the complete fuselage to the next assembly station. To do this, both process cranes and their eight hoist units operate under synchronized control.
In zone 2, two cranes lift the wings into position. Both are equipped with two traversing bridges and 3-ton hoist units that pick up the wings for attachment to the fuselage.
In zone 3, a crane with a 5-ton traveling hoist lifts the horizontal and vertical tail planes so that assemblers can attach them to the fuselage.
After an aircraft leaves the FAL, it is towed by tugger to the final phase hangar, where engines are attached and tested. “Any assembly work that still remains to be done and a final check is carried out here to ensure that all customer requirements have been met,” says Weber.
Once the nonunion Mobile plant is up to full speed, it will take 25 days to build each aircraft. The initial production rate of two aircraft per month will ramp up to four aircraft within a year.
By 2019, Airbus plans to crank up A320 production to 60 planes a month at its factories in China, France, Germany and the United States. That kind of production volume would be unprecedented in the commercial aerospace industry.
Airbus already leases an adjacent plot of land that could easily accommodate future expansion. In fact, industry observers believe it’s a matter of “when” rather than “if.”
“I expect Airbus to move more production to the United States in the future to get away from the union problems that they face in Europe,” says Hans Weber, president of TECOP International Inc., an aerospace consulting firm.
“Airbus will be more competitive in Alabama than they can ever expect to be in France or Germany,” claims Weber. “Long term, the Mobile plant could surpass China in terms of strategic importance to the company.”
According to Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at Teal Group Corp., the threat of future expansion in Mobile sends a strong message to the unions back in Europe.
“Having a strong presence here should enable Airbus to procure future U.S. defense contracts,” adds Aboulafia. “Diversifying their currency cost base is also a good idea, because Airbus has had problems competing in the past when the Euro has been strong.”
The new Airbus assembly line has already attracted several aerospace suppliers, and more are expected to eventually set up shop in the Mobile area.
“Alabama has a long history in aerospace and aviation, but the future looks even brighter because of major developments like the Airbus production launch,” says Greg Canfield, secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce. “Our aerospace and aviation sector is poised to reach new altitudes in coming years as major industry players expand their Alabama operations.”
The Mobile Aeroplex complex has already seen a burst of activity from aerospace companies such as AAA Aerospace USA (engine installation and wheel assembly); MAAS Aviation (paint shop); and REEL USA Corp. (platforms, jigs and material handling tools).
At the Paris Air Show last summer, Hutchinson Corp. (anti-vibration and thermo-acoustic insulation systems) announced that it plans to set up an Aerospace Manufacturing Center of Excellence in Mobile to serve Airbus. Another French company, Safran, is building a facility to house several of its subsidiaries, including Aircelle (engine nacelles) and Messier-Buggatti-Dowty (landing gear and brake systems).
To learn more about Airbus manufacturing, click:
- Assembling the Super Jumbo
- Airbus Ramps Up Automation