The giant passenger plane requires a giant supply chain.
LOS ANGELES TIMES
TOULOUSE, France -- To build the world's biggest passenger plane, Airbus first constructed the world's largest wing and fuselage factories. It set up a paint shop big enough to house a football stadium, bought the world's biggest automated riveting machine and commissioned a 505-foot-long transport ship.
Today at Airbus headquarters here, the public will get its first look at what many consider an engineering marvel: the A380, the heaviest and costliest commercial passenger aircraft ever built. In a lavish ceremony, a 10-story-high curtain will part to reveal the first completed "super-jumbo" plane before some 5,000 guests, including British Prime Minister Tony Blair and French President Jacques Chirac.
By the numbers
The A380 will carry as many as 800 passengers -- more than double the capacity of a Boeing 747 -- on two decks. The craft will weigh more than 1.2 million pounds fully loaded. It stretches about 260 feet wingtip to wingtip, and the tail stands seven stories high. The A380's passenger cabin is so elevated that 18 doors are equipped with emergency slides made with special friction material to slow down escaping passengers. Final work on the aircraft is done in a hangar 1,610 feet long, and workers must take elevators to reach their spots in the assembly line along a five-story-high scaffolding.
"Everything about this plane is mind-boggling," said Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst for research firm Teal Group.
For 35 years, Boeing Co.'s 747 set the standard for jumbo commercial aircraft. European governments got into the airplane business in 1970 by teaming up to finance Airbus, which is now controlled by a Dutch aerospace company. Airbus thinks its plane will create the blueprint for the next generation of airborne giants.
"It's the plane of the future, a cruise ship in the sky," said John Leahy, Airbus' top salesman, who is credited with helping the company surpass Boeing as the world's biggest-selling aircraft maker. The A380 "will change the way we fly, just like what the 747 did."
Eleven airlines, including Singapore, Korean Air, Lufthansa and Air France, plus cargo carriers FedEx and UPS, have ordered 149 planes at $250 million apiece. After a year of test flights, the first passenger-carrying A380 is expected to fly in spring 2006, with Los Angeles International Airport a likely destination.
In keeping with the grand scope of the A380, to get the plane built involves a global mobilization of supplies that is unequaled for an industrial project. Some 18,000 suppliers in 30 countries, including the United States, have a hand in its construction. Thousands of A380 parts crisscross the globe daily en route to factories in Europe. Plants in Britain assemble the wings, workers in Germany build the fuselage, and these major sections are then shipped to Toulouse for final assembly.
The man responsible for this $12-billion project, including the delivery of a jigsaw puzzle of parts, is Frenchman Charles Champion, 49, executive vice president for the A380. Champion, a Stanford University graduate, has no doubt that despite its size, the A380 will fly "beautifully." The plane relies more on composites, such as carbon fiber, than does the 747, to save weight while adding significantly more space.
Prompt delivery required
What worries Champion and keeps him up at night are the logistics of "getting the supplies here on time." A single A380, for instance, requires 1 million aluminum fasteners.
Any kink in the intricate global delivery chain could delay the A380, and that could be financially devastating for Airbus and its suppliers.
Already, though, the economic effect of the plane is widespread. More than 100,000 people in the United States alone are involved in getting the A380 airborne.
At Monogram Systems in Carson, Calif., engineers are refining the plumbing for the biggest waste and water system ever built for an aircraft. In Irvine, Calif., Thales Inc. has built the world's largest in-flight entertainment test laboratory, where 600 seat-back video monitors are left on for days to see how such a massive system would perform if that many A380 passengers decided to watch movies at the same time.
But of all the components for the A380, the wings are considered the most crucial, and they illustrate the great lengths to which Airbus has gone to spread out work on the project.
In western Australia, near Perth, miners dig up a reddish, claylike material containing bauxite, the principal ore of aluminum, which makes up the basic structure of the A380. Bauxite is ground down and mixed with caustic soda and lime, then heated to a granulated state. It's shipped to a smelting plant in Texas, where it is poured into large pots and shocked with electricity to turn it into hard aluminum ingots the size of mattresses.
The ingots are shipped to Alcoa Inc.'s Davenport, Iowa, plant, the world's largest aluminum mill. Stretching 1.2 miles along the Mississippi River, the facility produces aluminum sheets and plates used in bicycles, cars, trucks, planes and rockets. It's the only mill that can fabricate aluminum pieces large enough for the A380.
The ingots are put through a machine with rollers that apply 16 million pounds of pressure. In 10 minutes the ingots are reduced in thickness from 20 inches to barely half an inch. Another machine pulls and stretches them to create 6-ton aluminum plates 115 feet long.
These aluminum wing pieces are so long that Airbus had to design a single-bed truck trailer that can extend out, like a telescope, to carry the metal plates across the Midwest to Baltimore, from where they are shipped to Broughton in North Wales.
Broughton is home to the world's largest wing assembly plant, with enough room to fit 12 soccer fields.
Lennie Cimeli, head of A380 wing skin manufacturing, climbed up on one of the pieces. "This is my baby," he said, pointing at what appeared to be a shiny aluminum floor. A 29-year Airbus veteran, Cimeli has been involved in virtually every new aircraft built by the company. But the A380 will be special, he said. "I would love to see this big baby fly."
Aluminum plates arrive at the Broughton factory in the basic shape of a wing. The pieces are too big to stand up, so they are laid on the plant floor. Then a milling machine on rails moves back and forth over them to shave off most of the aluminum, turning a 6-ton plate into a shiny 1-ton sheet.
The wing skins are treated in a chemical bath. Then a three-story-high automated robotic riveting machine, the first of its kind, attaches the skins to a row of ribs made of composites and metals. The machine uses more than 750,000 fasteners to attach the skins; any difficult-to-reach spots are riveted by hand.
Afterward, workers install the wing innards, including electrical wiring, hydraulic and fuel systems and an air pump the size of a compact car. The wing is so thick that the Houston Rockets' 7-foot-6 basketball center Yao Ming could stand comfortably inside its broadest point.
To move each 120-foot-long wing piece to Toulouse, along with fuselage pieces from Germany, Airbus had to create a shipping system.
A 96-wheel trailer carries the wing piece a mile down the road, where it is loaded onto a custom-built river craft. The craft carries one wing piece and travels 16 miles downriver to the port at Mostyn. "We have to catch a good tide here" to clear the low bridges, said Ken Roberts, an Airbus manager in charge of transporting the wing. "It can be challenging sometimes."
At the port, the parts are moved onto a Chinese-built cargo ship to be transported to France. The cargo ship, a derivative of a car carrier built for Airbus, is marked with large letters saying "A380 Onboard."
After the parts are unloaded at a port north of Bordeaux, they go on a barge that makes its way 60 miles up the Garonne River.
At the small river port village of Langon, the wings and fuselage are separately loaded onto tractor-trailers, which make the final leg of the journey through 150 miles of French countryside, mostly two-lane roads lined with vineyards and geese farms, to landlocked Toulouse.
The convoy -- three tractor-trailers carrying two wing sections and a fuselage -- makes the trek overnight, when the French police close down intersecting roads.
Airbus paid to expand or strengthen portions of the roadways and built bypasses around villages where old roads were too small. It also built four massive resting areas for the convoy, equipped with stadium lights that illuminate nearby farms and villages that date back to the Middle Ages.
After three days, the truck convoy reaches the outskirts of Toulouse, where a large sign marks the "end of a grand trip" before entering the massive assembly line.