Airbus is studying potential efficiency gains in its production system and what level of vertical integration makes sense in the future.

The efficiency study will be complete by the end of 2019, while the analysis of the outsourcing/insourcing balance will take longer, but could be ready in early 2020, new COO Michael Schoellhorn told journalists in Toulouse May 21. Issues at stake are, among other things, whether Airbus wants to continue ownership of aerostructure subsidiaries such as Premium Aerotec and Stelia Aerospace and whether additional acquisitions might make sense.

Airbus is in the process of increasing single-aisle production from 60 aircraft per month to 63 in 2021, but market demand seems to justify even more output.

“I wish I had more aircraft to sell,” CCO Christian Scherer said. “We are starved for availability.

The company hopes to find ways to improve efficiency of its legacy narrowbody final assembly lines in Toulouse and Hamburg, with the Hamburg setup having been copied for the Mobile, Alabama, and Tianjin, China, facilities.

“The historic footprint is not always the industrial optimum,” Schoellhorn said. “There is more efficiency in these lines, but it is too soon to tell how much. That is going to be the result of our studies.”

Schoellhorn pointed at supply chain constraints: “Not everyone can sustain higher rates; currently that is not the case.”

He was referring to engine manufacturers in particular—Pratt & Whitney and CFM International delays affected A320neo deliveries last year, and Rolls-Royce Trent 7000 delays have been impacting A330neo deliveries. Nonetheless, the “engine makers are by and large at the rate that we expect now. There are still specific issues with every one of them,” Schoellhorn said.

"The challenge for Airbus changing to a legacy production concept for building aircraft that were designed in the 1980s. Where it has introduced major changes in production techniques, including a substantially higher degree of automation, it has hit serious issues. That has been the case for the fourth narrowbody assembly line in Hamburg that was phased in in 2017 and is based on mobile tools and robotic drilling. Introducing the line was “a fairly complex enterprise, that is why there were some issues,” Schoellhorn said. But now the facility, housed in a former A380 hangar that became available because of that aircraft’s low rate of production, “is coming in line nicely,” he said. The facility is now meeting the internal output target, which, while lower than that of the legacy lines, is expected to ultimately match their output, he said.

Industry sources have suggested that Airbus has been facing more issues than expected on the fourth line and may not be able to reach its productivity targets any time soon.

Future production technology changes will be based on the concept of digital design manufacturing and services (DDMS), which aims to incorporate not only product design but production and support into the planning of new platforms.

“We have a unique automation opportunity through DDMS,” Schoellhorn said. He warned, however, that Airbus should not “automate for the sake of automation.” If more automation makes sense, then production technology skills need to be available in-house rather than from service providers, he said.

“DDMS lowers the cost and the ramp-up [of production] can be much steeper. We can make better compromises based on data between optimizing the product and the production system,” he said.

The vertical integration analysis is to lead to answers “in the next six to eight months,” Schoellhorn said. It will look into “what is core and noncore. It can go both ways and it is a question of total costs versus benefits. It is also linked to services.”

Jens Flottau, jens.flottau@aviationweek.com