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Originally published Sunday, January 15, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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How the other half builds

Among a crew of clean-cut young workers here, a fresh-faced 19-year-old rivets and bolts an airplane together. The Airbus final-assembly buildings...

Seattle Times aerospace reporter

Toulouse, France —

Among a crew of clean-cut young workers here, a fresh-faced 19-year-old rivets and bolts an airplane together.

The Airbus final-assembly buildings could never be mistaken for Boeing facilities in the Pacific Northwest, where the average age of mechanics is 49 and long, gray hair predominates.

A more fundamental difference looms inside the 25-acre final-assembly hall for the Airbus A380. It's a five-story-high metal superstructure where all the major pieces of the massive plane are joined together at once. This fixed jig is monumental evidence that Airbus takes a very different approach to airplane assembly than Boeing.

As both manufacturers ramp up production to meet soaring demand, success will depend upon which company's system proves more efficient.

Will it be Boeing, with Toyota-style moving assembly lines? Or Airbus, with fixed assembly stations?

It's an engineering disagreement, but it verges on the theological.

Boeing's faith in Japanese moving assembly lines "looks like a religious thing more than a real efficiency method," said Gérard Blanc, Airbus' then-executive vice president of operations in an interview at the Paris Air Show in June.

"We are not convinced," he said. "We believe a moving line is something that would cost us a lot, which would not bring enough benefit."

In Toulouse, mechanics bolt together the large finished sections of airplane — fuselage, wings, tailfin, landing gear — in a single tooling jig, which holds the pieces in precise alignment.

Boeing, by contrast, envisages an assembly line in which a nose-to-tail sequence of plane fuselages moves steadily, though almost imperceptibly, forward. Suppliers deliver parts to the appropriate point in the line. Mechanics race to complete tasks before the next checkpoint is reached.

At the Renton 737 narrow-body jet plant, after the wings go on the fuselage, mechanics install all systems and fittings on a moving line. Boeing is remaking the 777 wide-body assembly line in Everett more radically, with a plan to do even the structural joins on a moving line.

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As the A380 and 777 manufacturing plans demonstrate, production systems at Airbus and Boeing are increasingly divergent. And yet, Boeing may well borrow from the approach used in Toulouse for its next airplane, the 787.

The A320 youngsters

Airbus' best-selling jet, the A320 narrow-body, is assembled in the building where a much less financially successful airplane was once produced. It was here that Aerospatiale, which later became part of Airbus parent company European Aeronautic Defence and Space (EADS), built the Concorde supersonic jet.

Guiding a visitor through the building, senior Airbus manager and efficiency specialist Thierry Caillard was elegantly attired in a bow tie and wire-rimmed spectacles, looking more a stylish professor than a factory manager.

At the station where the A320 comes together, mechanics with rivet guns clambered over and through the two-story tooling jig.

As Caillard arrived, a half-dozen young guys bolted the wings to the fuselage. Each stopped work to exchange a ready smile and warm handshake with him. All wore a uniform: a blue Airbus T-shirt, jeans and an American-style baseball cap with added protective padding.

The newest mechanics work at this starting point of assembly. The youngest that day, Sebastien Roudiere, was 19. Caillard said the average age of production workers throughout the Toulouse final-assembly halls is 31.

By contrast, the youngest production worker at Boeing's Puget Sound-area plants just turned 31, according to Machinists union records. The striking age gap is a product of the major contraction at Boeing since the late 1990s, with younger workers always laid off first. In contrast, Airbus grew steadily through the 1990s and avoided layoffs later.

There are two A320 buildup jigs, allowing a pair of the jets to flow through in parallel. Any problem that arises while the airframe is in the jig is a potential bottleneck in the manufacturing process. But each A320 spends just 3.5 days there, Caillard said, down from eight days in 2002.

When the work of this first team of mechanics is complete, the airplane's main structural parts are in place. The tooling is pulled back and the airplane is wheeled out to any of five parallel multipurpose bays.

There, more experienced mechanics install and test the final systems and hang the engines on the wings. At this stage, a delay on one jet is no longer holding up the whole line.

The airplanes are painted in a separate hangar and then flown to Hamburg, Germany, for interior fittings.

That last step hardly seems an efficient move, but the Toulouse part of the process certainly is.

Caillard estimated that about 450 blue-collar workers assemble the A320s here. Though not counting the parallel work force in Hamburg that finishes the jet and the workers in Wales that make the wings, that's still a lean operation.

Airbus plans to increase A320 production from about 28 per month to 30 by March and 32 by January 2007.

(Boeing also plans to boost production of the rival 737, internal documents obtained by The Seattle Times show: from 24 per month now to 28 per month as early as this spring. It is studying the possibility of a rate as high as 31 per month by summer 2007.)

A different approach

The European manufacturer's methods have evolved over 30 years, Blanc said in June, with one overriding goal: to minimize final assembly, "the point of convergence of costs and risks."

"We want to make it as short as possible," he said.

From inception, Airbus organized manufacturing as a multinational engineering project, so that each large finished section — a wing, a piece of fuselage, the tailfin — arrives in Toulouse from Airbus plants in Germany, the U.K. and Spain "as finished as it can economically and feasibly be," he said. (Blanc left Airbus a month later, after being passed over for the CEO position.)

In this regard, Boeing will soon imitate its rival. The 787 will set a new manufacturing standard at Boeing, with completed sections arriving from around the globe and minimized final assembly in Everett taking just three days.

Boeing will even copy the Airbus logistics solution, converting three used 747s into custom-built supertransports to ferry the 787 parts around the world.

Because the Airbus approach implies telescoping the final-assembly process into a much shorter interval, optimizing the process is key.

"The time to resolve a given problem is smaller," Blanc said, "You have to react in faster fashion."

If there are any benefits to a moving line, Blanc said, they are essentially psychological: a moving line stops when there's a problem, focusing attention on whatever is causing delay and demanding a fast response.

But Airbus can get the same result without a moving line, he said, by monitoring production and posting warnings on large display boards when problems occur. (Boeing has such a system in its plants as well.)

"We are able to produce the same effect: of having the right teams swarming immediately to resolve the problem," Blanc said. "What people are after when they make a moving line can be achieved with much less investment."

Ultimately, Boeing may not disagree. The assembly line for the new 787 — representing the long-term future of Boeing production — is still in development, but it is clear it will be unlike existing systems. In Paris in June, 787 program leader Mike Bair said that it probably won't be a moving line.

And preliminary concept drawings of 787 final assembly obtained by The Times suggest the new jets will take shape in a fixed position with large aircraft sections and small-scale tooling jigs wheeled into place on trolleys.

Airbus has "had advances we could learn from," said 787 program spokeswoman Yvonne Leach. "Our goal is to bring together the best ideas in the world. When it comes to the 787, here's our chance."

Building the Superjumbo

The future may bring some convergence between the rivals, but the production systems now have never been more dissimilar.

The latest and greatest manifestation of Airbus' approach to building airplanes is in the final assembly hall for the A380 Superjumbo, the largest commercial jet in the world.

The jaw-dropping centerpiece of the manufacturing plan is a 1,300-ton tooling jig whose price tag Airbus won't disclose. In this monstrous frame, mechanics join the fuselage, which arrives in three huge pieces, then add the wings, tail, landing gear and belly fairings.

"The intention here is just to bolt everything together," said Corrin Higgs, A380 product-marketing manager.

In June, only six airplanes had passed through this jig, so production was still a work in progress. Higgs said that when the manufacturing process matures, this structural build will take about a week.

Afterward, over a period of three weeks in one of three large bays, mechanics put finishing touches on the airframe, test systems and hang the engines.

The pace Higgs cited will support its intention of producing four of these leviathans per month.

But that's using only half the building. Should the A380 get more orders — sorely lacking in 2005 — the other half is reserved for a potential doubling of production.

To do that, Airbus would need to invest in another of those giant tooling jigs.

Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or dgates@seattletimes.com

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