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OM in the News: The Battle to Manufacture Planes More Efficiently

June 19, 2015
The interior of the A350. Airbus used a faster and more ergonomic way to build overhead bins, among other tweaks to ease production

The interior of the A350. Airbus used a faster and more ergonomic way to build overhead bins, among other tweaks to ease production

Production mistakes at a giant Airbus factory a decade ago almost crippled the European plane maker, writes The Wall Street Journal (June 12, 2015). Today, the factory is a model of efficiency and a nexus for the company’s efforts to produce jetliners at an unprecedented clip. After years of racing to develop and market new models, both Airbus and Boeing have clear product lines and backlogs for the next decade. Now, each aims to grab market share by building its planes faster and more efficiently than the other—a gambit both have struggled with in the past.

For Airbus, the lessons being showered on its new A350 (its largest twin-engine jet, designed to compete with Boeing’s 787 and 777), come from the A380. That project caused havoc inside Airbus when wiring problems led to multibillion-dollar cost overruns, furious customers and years of management turmoil. On the new A350, lasers guide computerized clamps that push together giant fuselage sections in a process that is 30% faster and 40% cheaper than on the superjumbo. Thanks partly to such improvements, the A350 project has stayed on schedule and on budget.

Efforts to accelerate production have ranged from reducing vacation days to high-tech innovation. Airbus is introducing a giant inkjet printer to paint the tail fins of its planes. The new printer could slash by almost 90% the 170 hours that workers now need to prepare and paint an ornate airline logo. Airbus says that in a few years the printer could double painting capacity and cut related labor costs by half. Another step to hit the target rollout date was tapping veterans. Managers on the A350 line insisted that at least 70% of workers come from other Airbus programs. Efficiency gains like these are vital because building jetliners is so complex.

Classroom discussion questions:

1. How would you define efficiency (see Chapter 1)?

2. Why is efficiency so important to Boeing and Airbus?


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