Airbus: Short Distances with the Butler

Optimizing supplies of small parts for the huge aircraft
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Companies & Projects (44) > standardization (6) > Airbus: Short Distances with the Butler
MTM was used to pinpoint various key areas where processes need to be optimized; this took place in the spring of 2013. One of them involved stocks of small components near the assembly point – what is known as “freestock.” The following project report explains how a practical solution was found by the team involved.

The Airbus A380 is a low wing, four-engined, wide-body aircraft made by the European manufacturer Airbus, a subsidiary of the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS) – Europe’s largest aerospace group. Airbus generated sales of approx. EUR 39 billion in 2012 and currently employs about 59,000 people. Its headquarters are located in Toulouse; production and development work takes place at various European business sites in France, Germany, Spain and Great Britain.

The Airbus A380 is the largest civil commercial aircraft that has ever gone into series production in the world. Depending on what the airline requires, between 500 and 800 people can be accommodated on two end-to-end passenger decks. The length of the cabin on the main deck is 50 meters, while the upper deck is almost 45 meters long. A concept has been developed – in conjunction with MTM – to optimize the distances covered by workers who are inserting small parts when fitting out cabins at the Hamburg-Finkenwerder factory; and the system has now been successfully introduced.

The production of small components for the A380 takes place at the various European Airbus business locations – the same as for the other Airbus models:

  • The wings, part of the fuselage and a nose section come from Broughton (GB)
  • Other parts of the fuselage are manufactured in Hamburg-Finkenwerder (D) und Saint-Nazaire (F), while the cockpit section is produced in Nantes (F)
  • The vertical tail comes from Stade (D), the tailplane from Getafe (E) and the flight controls from Toulouse (F)
  • Glare (glass-fiber reinforced aluminum) components for the fuselage exterior are made in Bremen (D) und Nordenham (D)
  • The final assembly of the three landing flaps for each wing takes place at Bremen. They are made of two materials – the inner landing flap is made of aluminum, while the two others are made of carbon fiber reinforced plastic; the latter are made at Stade.

All the components are shipped to Toulouse for final assembly using heavy-duty transport services or transporter aircraft – or by ship, if the parts are enormous. The aircraft is then transferred to Hamburg-Flinkenwerder, where the fuselage exterior is painted and the interior of the cabins is equipped with components from the Airbus business center in Buxtehude and parts from other manufacturers.

Standards for all the Airbus nations

A central department in Toulouse – called Manufacturing Engineering Support – manages everything. All the processes are defined, standardized and documented here. The Senior Manager for the German business centers in Hamburg, Bremen and Stade, Dr. Erwin Schwinn, believes that it is important “that the same standardized processes are used in all the departments, but local interests need to be taken into account. At the moment, various methods are being replaced by the MTM method at other Airbus nations too. It’s important to have a central department, which ensures that the process building blocks for identical work content are not different, for example. We’re more than happy to use the experience of MTM advisers in joint project teams as the interface between the central department and the local departments.”

Jan Gollenbeck, Industrial Engineering Team Leader at Airbus Operations GmbH in Hamburg, Bremen and Stade, comments on this approach in terms of industrial engineering. “We receive many direct suggestions for improvements from the employees. Our MTM experts assess the suggestions in the various hangars and programs; the benefits, costs and savings potential are all studied in the specialist departments. The expertise available in industrial engineering is important so that decisions can be made on whether savings can actually be achieved by introducing the suggestion.”

And he explains more about how MTM is used, “We’re in the process of standardizing the MTM method across different nations for all our business centers and we’ll exclusively analyze series production work in future with UAS.”

From pre-production to series production work

“The special thing about manufacturing aircraft is the smooth transition from pre-production to series production work,” Gollenbeck says, explaining the reason for the project on the Final Assembly Line (FAL). “We’re limited with regard to the number of prototypes, because we can only manufacture five aircraft for extensive testing purposes without any certification. So our processes in a new program may not be fully developed at the outset.” Customizing also plays a special role, particularly in the cabin area, because each customer would like to have its own individual ideas introduced for seats, carpets, galleys and other areas that are visible to passengers, so that “our customers can give each aircraft a unique appearance with their individual equipment. This results in a huge variety of parts, which is very often a challenge for our logistics processes.”

MTM was used to pinpoint various key areas where processes need to be optimized; this took place in the spring of 2013. One of them involved stocks of small components near the assembly point – what is known as “freestock.” All the small components for the cabin equipment on the two passenger decks and the freight deck were kept here. “But because of the size of the aircraft, having the parts “near the assembly point” meant that even if the freestock was directly in front of the aircraft, the employees still had to walk several hundred meters each time to complete a production order,” Gollenbeck explains, commenting on the original situation. “So optimizing distances, particularly on an aircraft of this size, is always an important issue.”

Finding the solution as a team

Werner Levens, Manufacturing Process Engineer at the A380 FAL in Hamburg comments on the process. “We discovered at the outset that all the parts were certainly stored in the hangar, but employees had to walk long distances and be involved in lengthy search processes in order to complete specific customer orders. In order to switch to genuine series production work, it was clear that the logistics processes had to be closer to the production work! The employees provided suggestions on this matter in the ideas forums and we developed two concepts: one for the main and upper deck with the customized cabin equipment and one for the freight loading system on the lower cargo deck, which is far more standardized.”

We performed the following work on two A380 planes with different equipment in a project team with the experts from MTM:

  • work process analyses were carried out
  • distance matrices were drawn up and
  • search processes were analyzed to answer questions like:
  • Which small parts were taken from the freestock?
  • Which distances were necessary to get to the insertion point?
  • Which other materials were required?

Success with a butler and milk run

A system using a “butler” was developed as the solution for the cabin equipment work: All the small components are pre-picked by an internal logistics services provider in a product box known as the “butler” in line with orders; this is placed on a small shelf right next to the aircraft very close to the place where they will be inserted. The assembly worker can then pick up both the large components placed there, like seats and galleys, and the small parts that are required too in one go and then install them in the plane in line with requirements. All other exertion is then eliminated, apart from picking up parts from the product box.

A similar solution was found for the cargo deck: Shelves have been set up very close to the insertion point, but the KANBAN concept is employed here to make the necessary materials available: product boxes are used here too, but with loose containers. The assembly worker replaces an empty container with a full one at the material supplies shelf. The picker refills the units in line with a fixed timetable, what is known as the “milk run”, so that all the containers are refilled and the correct number of them is always available.

“This has made the production work much easier for our colleagues,” Levens says, summing up the situation; “they could hardly wait for the end of the annoying search work and walking such great distances.”


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