PARIS (Reuters) - Airbus (AIR.PA) is poised to increase assembly of its latest A350 model after getting off to a deliberately slow start to curb risks, the head of Airbus programmes, Didier Evrard, said.
After delivering one aircraft in December and another in the first quarter, Airbus is ready to pick up the pace by delivering about six between now and August, leaving eight more to complete to reach a target of 15 for the whole of 2015.
Airbus has said deliveries of both the A350 and the A380 superjumbo will be weighted towards the later half of this year.
Currently, the A350 assembly plant is running at different speeds as it adjusts to building the new carbon-composite jet.
Enough parts are entering the assembly line to make three aircraft a month, but deliveries are much slower.
This reflects the normal process for adapting to a new product, but also a deliberate strategy to take the time needed to weed out risk, Evrard told Reuters in an interview.
“We are running quite fast at the entrance to the Final Assembly Line (FAL) but the production cycles inside the FAL are still quite slow,” Evrard said.
“So we are going to both increase the speed and reduce the cycle. In this way, aircraft will be leaving the FAL at a rate which is closer and closer to the rate at which they enter.”
The changes do not reflect an increase in the overall production target, which foresees 10 planes a month by 2018.
The supply chain is already at four or five aircraft a month.
In contrast with a series of high-profile meltdowns in aircraft development or production on both sides of the Atlantic, the Airbus A350 has so far surprised the industry and investors by remaining relatively smooth with few delays.
Analysts say the acid test is whether it can turn smooth development into an equally smooth production ramp-up.
“The A380 problems really only started once it went into production,” said Agency Partners analyst Nick Cunningham.
To avoid a repeat of such problems, Fabrice Bregier, then in charge of Airbus operations and now its president, looked beyond the civil hierarchy to a defence industry veteran when embarking on ambitious plans to compete with the carbon-fibre Boeing 787.
Working under Bregier at Matra BAe Dynamics, later MBDA, Evrard had run Storm Shadow/SCALP, Europe’s cruise missile project that drove restructuring of Europe’s weapons industry.
Moving out of the classified world to become A350 programme manager in 2007, until his recent promotion to head of all Airbus programmes, the 61-year-old says his first task was to rebuild confidence after a period of industrial turmoil.
He imposed iron discipline when proceeding from one stage or “gate” to the next and introduced a commercial equivalent of “low-rate initial production”, often used in defence projects.
“We never went forward without knowing the risks,” he said.
At the same time as speeding up assembly of the main A350-900 model that entered service this year, Airbus is preparing to start assembling the larger A350-1000 in 2017.
Evrard said Airbus had taken steps to protect the A350-900 from any hiccups in building the larger plane, by inserting dedicated buffer zones, including a third factory area for joining fuselage sections together, known as Station 50.
This will be blended back into the main production line once the two models are flowing through the plant at the same rate.
Evrard said the widely watched convergence between actual and planned recurring costs remained in line with objectives.
Editing by David Holmes