The Jean-Luc Lagardère "cathedral" on the Airbus site in Toulouse is today a vast construction site where the various elements of an industrial puzzle are gradually being assembled, giving rise to an A321neo assembly line incorporating a series of innovations, while at the same time incorporating others already proven on the Saint-Nazaire and Hamburg sites.
Airbus A321neo in Toulouse: first roll-out for the end of 2023
Wooden crates, scaffolding and temporary offices, plastic sheeting......The " Jean-Luc Lagardère " hall, which housed the A380 at the Airbus site in Toulouse, has begun a new slice of life. The "cathedral" is gradually being organized to accommodate a new assembly line dedicated to the Airbus A321neo and its various versions. " The project was launched in 2020 but then suspended due to the pandemic, then relaunched in May 2021. We started installing the first station last October " says Marion Smeyers, head of the new assembly line.
This will be a key element in the increase in production rates decided by Airbus with the objective of achieving the 75 medium-haul aircraft per month for the middle of the decade. "The first finished aircraft to come off this line should be rolled out by the end of this year, and the line will be at full capacity by 2025," says Marion Smeyers, who refuses to specify the number of aircraft that will come off the new line each year. The first elements of the first A321neo are already there at station 42/43.
Not far away, motionless and carefully parked, one of the robots whose role is to lift the tooling platforms on which the fuselage sections are located to bring them to station 41 where the joining of the two sections of the aircraft will be carried out. The robot's path is guided by magnetic lines. Airbus inaugurated this type of equipment for the fourth medium-haul assembly line at its Hamburg site and where the platforms are guided by laser in a ballet ordered to the centimeter.
" The principle is the same but not the model. Because, we have here in Toulouse, a lot of space and so we made something very simple, in line ", comments Marion Smeyers. In Hamburg, we had to take into account a much more constrained space (see A&C n° 2603). In Toulouse, the autonomous mobile platforms will be used until station 40 where the landing gear will be installed (the aircraft is then on its wheels/ndlr) while work will continue in the passenger cabin (walls, baggage storage) which will have begun as of stations 42/43.
The Flextrack robot still at work
This is indeed where the " monuments " of the cabin will be installed first (galleys and toilets) as well as the elements related to the radome and antennas. The continuation will take place at station 41 where the junction of the sections of fuselage will be carried out with use of robots " Flextrack " to carry out the drilling on the higher part. Here too, Airbus is using technological innovations introduced at other sites for its new A321neo assembly line in Toulouse. And notably in Saint-Nazaire, first on the A330 from 2015, then on the A320 nose section in 2018. And in Hamburg in 2019.
" The Flextrack comes to pick up on the fuselage with vented rails and its electrified head comes to locate the holes to be drilled using a digital grid. The robot is controlled by a tablet. The gain is important in terms of quality because the traditional metal drilling grids are not only tiring to use for the companion but can also create scratches, impacts," explains Cédric Le Roy, head of production assembly structures and systems of the new A321neo line.
The experience gained on robots that drill, then rivet is not repeated in Toulouse. " This requires installing tanks with fixtures, which results in electric heads and robots that are too large to attach to the rails. Also, it is the drilling operation that is the most painful. And if you have a problem with the robot, breakdowns or other unforeseen production events, the interest of having only the drilling function allows you to call on the manual with the traditional drilling grid ", underlines Cédric Le Roy.
Other innovative equipment already proven that will be able to be used by the companions of the new A321neo line: secure cell phones and common smart tool boxes. "Before, everyone had their own personal box and their own tools. We are using the smart toolbox formula introduced on the A350 line. All the tools are equipped with RFID chips. The journeyman arrives, swipes his badge to unlock and takes the tools he needs for his mission ".
And the production manager continued "when the journeyman comes back to put his tools on and if ever one is missing, an alarm goes off. This makes it possible to stop operations and go looking for the forgotten missing tool. The feedback is very positive. On the A350 line, the toolbox has been completely accepted. Workers can also consult "assembly schedules" or operations to be carried out on the aircraft on secure cell phones donated by the company. Here again, Saint-Nazaire served as a test bed.
Preliminary 3D scanning
On the other hand, one of the novelties of the Toulouse A321neo line is its preliminary 3D scanning. " This is the first time that a chain and its frames have been fully digitized. This allows us to increase the number of flow tests, tool integration and platform movement simulations. The other advantage of this digital twin is that we can integrate workers from other assembly lines. They were able to participate in the design phase, bring their experience, highlighting potential accident risks, possibilities for better ergonomics ", says Cédric Le Roy.
A digital twin that is all the more crucial as the line will have to simultaneously manage personnel and autonomous mobile vehicles. Hence the need to safely manage pedestrian flows and vehicle flows. In addition to the robots that will move from Station 42/43 to Station 40, there will be automatic robots that will feed parts and equipment placed in carts to the multi-stage mobile hatch doors that surround the aircraft. A first for an assembly line and inspired by concepts that exist in other industries.
" An aircraft is a series of ranges to be made and each range calls for parts " says Philippe Lassus, head of automatic logistics deployment for the new A321neo line. "The carts will be loaded from the AirLog main warehouse, where the entire supply chain delivers its parts, and then they will arrive by truck to be dropped off at the entrance to the "marketplace". The transporter robot, equipped with the sensors and 3D cameras needed for its movements, comes to pick it up and store it in an intermediate warehouse.
" The production group, depending on the progress of the aircraft, will send a signal to the information system, indicating its demand for parts, and the signal generates a mission for the transporter robots that will go and pick up the right cart to take it to the right hopper door of the station from which the demand started ", Philippe Lassus adds. The aim is to reduce the companion's movements, which also avoids going back and forth up the stairs, since the parts are brought directly to the top of the platform through the hopper gates or APG for " Automatic Pallets Gate ".
Two-step canopy junction
The robot transporters, of which there will eventually be 24, will be used up to station 25. Beginning at Station 42/43, the aircraft's journey continues to Station 41 (fuselage junction), then to Station 40 where some of the wing junction work is performed in parallel with the installation of the landing gear. The industrial novelty is to smooth out the wing joining operations in two stages because they are now finalized on station 37 where the vertical and horizontal tailplanes of the aircraft are also installed.
"On the other assembly lines, all the wing joining work takes place at station 40, which requires the organization of teams in three shifts (morning/afternoon/night). By spreading the operations over two stations, 40 and 37, we can get in two shifts. This will give the journeymen some breathing room while giving us more flexibility if we need to work extra hours. This inspired the more clocked line at our Hamburg site and they added a station to do the same thing," explains Marion Smeyers.
At station 35 begins the electrical powering of the aircraft of which " we turn on all the hydraulic systems " with a cycle of tests for proper operation. At the same time, "we are starting to install some passenger cabin elements," says Marion Smeyers, who adds: "Once the aircraft leaves this hall, it is completely finished from a structural and systems point of view, except for the engines and nacelles which are installed much later. The aircraft can then go to Station 25 where all the cabin installation ".
Ensuring maximum fluidity at Station 25
At Station 25 no innovations per se but mainly taking into account feedback from other medium-haul but also long-haul assembly lines to facilitate not only the fluidity of production but also the work of the companions. "At Station 25 are carried out finishes such as the installation of sharklets and system tests, but the main activity is the finishing of the passenger cabin, finishing carpets, installing ceilings and seats," explains Yoann Baudin, who is in charge of the entire end of the production process.
Station 25 houses three aircraft stations to which is added a fourth intended to " accommodate if necessary the more complex aircraft in terms of passenger cabin ". "A complex aircraft is one that incorporates a lot of options, and if it doesn't make it into the average production cycle, we'll put it on this fourth station to take the time to finish it. A complex aircraft is not necessarily the A321XLR. Generally speaking, what makes the work overload on an A321 compared to an A320 is the passenger cabin and its customization according to customer requests such as the number of business class seats, for example," he adds.
Other elements put in place to avoid " any bottleneck " and obtain maximum fluidity : decentralized parts stores and a covered slab where passenger seats will be housed at the height of the aircraft doors. "This is the feedback from operators on the A330 and A350 who have heavy cabins to manage. This slab adjoining the aircraft makes it possible to assemble all the seats at once and to be able to work on them while avoiding the round trips of operators to come and assemble the seat, prepare it, pre-equip it " says Yoann Baudin.
The decision to equip each aircraft station with a parts store is part of this logic of greater industrial efficiency. He continues " before we had centralized parts stores that took quite a bit of time in distribution. In addition, the parts arrived at the foot of the aircraft in an environment not designed for this. As a result, you had operators and parts running around in a chaotic manner," he adds. "For us, the end of Station 25 is when the customer comes, inspects and tells us : I'm happy with the cabin, don't touch anything else ".
The aircraft is then good to go to one of the two paint shops that Airbus has in Toulouse, then back to undergo pressurization tests to make sure its seal is intact. The aircraft is then taken to Station 21 where it receives its engines and nacelles. Here again, another battery of validation tests before the final tests that will definitively confirm its " good to fly ", completed by flight tests and acceptance flights with the pilots of the airline that will receive the aircraft.
There is no point in going faster than the music
The immense total surface area of the Jean-Luc Lagardère Hall allows us to envisage, in the long term, a second single-aisle assembly line. But, this is not the priority of the teams in charge of installing the first. "Our friends in the wide-body sector are still in positions here," says Yoann Baudin, adding gently: "For each station that is opened, we have to make sure that we have industrialized the aircraft and that we have thought out the system properly. Therefore, the first MSN will spend a lot of time on each station". In short, there is no point in going faster than the music.
Marion Smeyers, head of the new line, says no different. Moreover, the first A321 will not be the only one to "debug" the entire industrial system being installed. "The production cycle between arrival at Station 42/43 and delivery to the customer will eventually be eight weeks," she says, adding: "But the cycle for the first three aircraft will be longer, because they have a specific objective: to observe, improve and mature the industrial system. This is crucial, because that way we can lay the right foundations and then achieve a fairly strong ramp-up."
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