A couple of months ago I was invited to Hamburg by Airbus to participate in the company’s Innovation Days 2016 event. The event is a mix of press briefings, Airbus factory tours and a tiny bit of free time to have a beer or two in town. The beer part was fun, of course, but getting on to the factory floor for an in-depth guided tour was truly the highlight of the week. Here’s some of what I got to see and do.
First up was a visit to the carbon fiber facility in Stade. This is where the main fiber skin components for A350 wings are created. The first step involves layering row after row of the fiber threads in the proper weave pattern, a process performed by a robot, though constantly monitored and managed by a team of humans. The robotic head travels back and forth across the form, building up the skin to the proper thickness and strength.
Once the weave is properly laid down the full wing surface is transported off the template and into one of the largest commercial autoclaves in the world. There it is baked in a vacuum environment, solidifying the carbon fiber skin into the ultra-strong, light-weight final material. Wing components are then flown to England where they are attached to struts and eventually formed into the full wing assembly units before being returned to Toulouse where they are attached to the Airbus A350 fuselage on the final assembly line.
Stade is also where the tail fins are built for all Airbus jets. Perhaps most impressive about this part of the tour was seeing the size difference between the A320 and A380 fins. I shouldn’t be surprised given how much larger the A380 is than an A320 in general, but seeing it happen up close is always awe-inspiring.
From there it was back to Hamburg-Finkenwerder where we went inside the A380 fuselage assembly building. While there were a number of A380 fuselage sections being worked on – eventually they are transferred to Toulouse for final assembly – a chunk of the factory floor is now dedicated to A320 fuselage components. With the production pace of the A320 growing and that of the A380 slowing, the company needs more A320 fuselage sections and is borrowing space from the A380 to make sure it has the production throughput to meet that need.
Finally we went to one of the A320 final assembly line buildings to walk through the process by which the aircraft takes its final shape. Fuselage sections are joined together, interiors installed (before the join when possible as it makes for a much easier, more efficient process), landing gear and wings attached and finally the engines. After a few days on the floor the plane will eventually roll out the far end, ready to fly.
So, yeah, I mostly just geeked out for that half the day. I’m a huge fan of getting to see how things are made (anything, not just airplanes). Having access to tour the facilities along with the employees who work the lines and manage the process is even better.
n.b. – I covered my costs getting to Hamburg; Airbus covered my expenses while there and onward to Dublin when Innovation Days concluded. All the geeking out was of my own volition.
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