Airbus gets to grips with wire woes

Farnborough Air Show » 2006
November 27, 2006, 10:39 AM

Regardless of how massive the project, there’s no escaping the devil in the detail, as Airbus knows all too well since it announced the second major delay of the Airbus A380 last month. But until just recently it seemed the company would limit its public explanation of the problem to vague references to changes in wiring configurations and production bottlenecks. To his credit, Airbus executive vice president of programs Tom Williams finally cleared the air over this past weekend, in an apparent nod to the company’s stated recommitment to transparency.

“The actions taken to resolve bottlenecks in electrical harness design and reworks were not sufficient,” acknowledged Williams. First identified in spring 2005, the bottlenecks formed when designers failed to adequately account for the “richness” of customer specifications and react to changes in their requirements. Williams would lay none of the blame on the customers, however.

“We take full responsibility for this,” said Williams, who noted that design miscalculations by Airbus itself played a bigger role in the eventual failure to meet its delivery guarantees. Williams blamed a lack of quality in the airplane’s digital mockup for cases in which engineers found that brackets did not fit where predicted and walls appeared where the computer drawings showed open space.

Meanwhile, the models didn’t properly account for the properties of the airplane’s high concentration of aluminum wires; bends tend to shorten aluminum wires more than they do copper, so engineers found that the wires often proved too short to reach their connections. “There’s something like 500 kilometers of wiring inside the A380; it’s an extremely complex fit,” said Williams. “When you lay cables from the front of the aircraft to the back, and when you get to the back you might find that you’re a half meter too short.”

According to Williams, Airbus recognized the need for changes at various stages of the airplane’s development, starting with product definition, during flight tests and ground testing of cabin-equipped prototypes and, ultimately, during installation. Consequently, sections arrived at the final assembly line with incomplete wiring, requiring the engineers to in essence retrofit the bundles.

Since finally coming to terms with the seriousness of the A380’s problems, Airbus has taken a series of measures to ensure it meets the latest schedules. Steps include changing some of the senior management in Hamburg, slowing production speed, increasing resources, streamlining and simplifying processes to save time and improvements to the digital mockup.      

Airbus has assembled 15 A380s, but by the start of this month had sent only a single completed aircraft to Hamburg for painting and completion. It expects to deliver only one airplane.

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