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How Airbus cabling unwired a European giant
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How Airbus cabling unwired a European giant
Fri Jun 30, 2006 9:58 AM ET

By Tim Hepher

TOULOUSE, France (Reuters) - A trio of technicians crouched in the shell of an Airbus A380 look up and reply "Guten Tag!" to a greeting of "Bonjour!" and go back to their diagrams.

They are among dozens of extra specialists flown in from Hamburg to the Airbus assembly line in southwest France to help overcome problems in wiring Europe's superjumbo, the largest commercial aircraft ever built.

Working inside one of three disembowelled planes standing at work station 30, where aircraft are tested, they only have one task on their minds, except perhaps joining some of the 3,000 assembly workers in watching their heroes play in the soccer World Cup.

"Of course, that's important too," laughs one of the men.

The atmosphere inside the plant is otherwise eerily subdued for a firm in the throes of a crisis so serious that it caused a suspension of the French parliament and intensified a cross-border corporate power battle in France and Germany.

Designed to produce four of the giant planes a month, the 125,000-square-metre plant is full with eight aircraft, and the just-arrived parts of the next jet are stacked like broken toys.

"It is like a blocked pipe in your house. Putting more in doesn't open it up immediately," Andreas Fehring, vice president of A380 program management, says of the vast assembly line.

The problems that stripped parent company EADS <EAD.PA> of a quarter of its share price earlier this month started with tiny displacements in wiring of as little as 5 centimeters.

They ended in a profit warning and in orders to slow the convoys of fuselage parts and wings hauled from Germany, Britain and Spain to Toulouse, a landlocked city chosen to assemble the A380 for political reasons as much as its aeronautical skills.

In the plane, power and signal cables have to be a certain distance apart to avoid electro-magnetic interference. Cables also are strapped together in bundles called harnesses.

When testing shows that shaking or movement in flight may shift a cable close enough to another to cause interference, that cable must be moved.

Since there is no slack in the plane's 500 km of wiring, changing the position of one cable could require a cascade of changes in the positions of other cables or a whole new harness.

Multiply that by the number of aircraft already assembled -- 13 excluding the two built solely for static testing -- and changes can take thousands of hours of labor to complete.


To illustrate the complexity, Fehring produces colorful ****pit and fuselage diagrams resembling anatomical drawings.

"I compare it with the nervous system of the human body. You need the right connections and signals for everything to work."

At work station 30, an appreciation of the electrical issues begins as soon as you enter the plane, passing through what will be the first fully electrically operated doors on a large jet.

Wiring harnesses run mainly along the length of the plane, some in multi-colored bundles as thick as a human arm, others holding wispy signal cables barely bigger than a lock of hair.

Technicians examining wire tentacles dangling from the roof of each deck -- two for passengers and one for cargo -- need to check against two basic parameters they call functionality and geometry. Does the cable work and is it in the right place?

It would be more costly to pull out and replace wiring once it is hidden, so the jets have to be kept on the assembly line -- undignified creatures with blotches of green anti-corrosive paint and garish red noses -- until the wiring puzzle is solved.


Airbus announced delays of six months on its flagship A380 a year ago. In this month's re-run, wiring was blamed again. Some critics struggle to accept that wiring is the only reason for a one-year delay set to cost EADS 2 billion euros ($2.5 billion).

Although it is impossible to verify based on a factory visit and without specialist technical training, the picture that emerges from talking to Airbus on the ground is more nuanced than the rollercoaster public announcements might suggest.

Fehring said Airbus teams in Toulouse had already started work the wiring delays when he took up his position in April. There was no single show-stopper that brought the assembly line to a halt but an accumulation of work caused by testing feedback and by airlines' requirements for customized cabins.

If there is a smoking gun, it has not been left lying around on the factory floor in Toulouse.

"We are used to this. There is nothing which is abnormal, but it is an all new and big aircraft, and customization provides a lot of opportunities to be creative," Fehring said.

Airbus will not say what proportion of delays have stemmed from changes to the base model of A380 rather than the special needs of different airlines. The difference is crucial because customization is less likely to delay certification, which Airbus pledges is firmly on track for the end of this year.

Airbus says all but one of its 14 passenger-version users want the A380 configured for less than its standard 555-seat three-class format. Airlines have promised features ranging from bars to double-beds and casinos.

Industry analysts say carriers could cram in up to 853 all-economy passengers if business required that.

With four A380s logging 1,500 hours of test flights since the plane's inaugural flight last April, Airbus is at pains to stress there is nothing basically wrong with the plane.

EADS co-Chief Executive Noel Forgeard has blamed factories in Hamburg and St Nazaire in France, vexing unions and reportedly German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Fehring says the problems have nothing to do with bad supplies but with the complicated task of taking into account the details of final testing and special customer requirements at the same time as production is getting underway.

"It's all about industrialization," he says. "Every project is designed with a learning curve. We did our planning according to our best knowledge, and of course we will try to speed up."

Airbus has sold 159 of the passenger A380s, with the first shipment due to reach Singapore Airlines in December. But it faces penalties and possible cancellations as Fehring's teams toil to a new target of nine deliveries in 2007, down from 25.

Asked if Airbus can avoid another damaging delay, Fehring says, "I am confident. I think this should be the last and final one." And he tries not to think about the power crisis tearing apart relations at the top. "I am just getting on with my job."

Reuters 2006. 

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