Ramp up is a challenge but recruitment is no problem, says Airbus boss

Posted on 8 Nov 2012

Airbus’s COO Günter Butschek says production rate increase is Airbus’s single biggest operational challenge, and admits the company’s strong position is creating recruitment difficulties for its suppliers.

Airbus’s chief operating officer Günter Butschek has said that increasing output is the biggest operational challenge facing the company as it battles with an order backlog of 4,400 units and new orders.

He told The Manufacturer that Airbus is committed that lean manufacturing and process improvement will answer as much of the higher output requirement as possible, but capital investment will have to follow in order to reach the company’s rate targets.

In October, production of the aircraft company’s single aisle platform reached the rate of 42 units a month, up from 40 a month. In 2010 these platforms were manufactured at the rate of 36 a month. Airbus would like to increase the rate further.

Mr Butschek said it was impossible to define how much of the additional rate could be achieved through further operational efficiency gains but that this was the core focus before further capital expenditure. Airbus has a lean training academy and Broughton has put 1,800 employees, at manager and factory operative level, through the Airbus Lean Production System, a system that is now adopted company-wide.

Gunter Butschek says lean is the answer to many, but not all, of Airbus's ramp-up challenges

“How much scope there is to improve production processes varies from plant to plant,” he said. “At Broughton [wing manufacture] the factory is already very lean. Yes there is still potential for being leaner here but perhaps there is greater potential in other plants. Of course there is no point in one factory having much higher rates of productivity of main components than another, because they must all come together on time to build an aircraft.”

At Broughton in north Wales, Airbus is constructing a new jig at the single aisle platform factory to meet demand.

Airbus has cemented closer relationships with its suppliers, “most of which cannot be easily replaced” during the its latest output ramp up, says Mr Butschek, who stepped up to the COO job in June from Airbus head of operations.

In response to the order backlog, Airbus has introduced joint improvement programmes with its main suppliers which have technical capacity constraints. Specialists form joint project teams with suppliers, to explore the details of a project to seek “sustainable improved delivery performance”.

A more severe intervention is called a transformation project. “This is launched if we identify major constraints in the supplier’s capacity to respond to ramp up,” said Mr Butschek. “Deeper levels of operational support are provided, and we do make our support mandatory if required. It’s part of risk mitigation.”

There is usually no direct financial support, Mr Butschek said, “because the base assumption is that our suppliers are in a stable financial condition. They are normally in a position to fund their running operations and capacity increase independently.”

But he did not categorically rule out any financial support to key suppliers.

Growth for both the biggest commercial aircraft makers, Airbus and Boeing, has created recruitment issues in the aerospace industry.

This year, Airbus UK received 5,000 people to its apprenticeship open day for all apprentice positions. In the 2012 intake, the company wanted to hire 50 undergraduate apprentices – a programme that goes through to BEng level. In fact they took on 28, partly because the standard of applicants’ A Levels was not adequate.

Devon Sumner, an undergraduate apprentice at Airbus Broughton. Airbus UK wants to take on 50 of these apprentices a year, and recruits can progress to a BEng qualification

As a desirable company to work for Butschek said that Airbus was in “a luxurious position”, being able to recruit adequately to respond to the current programme ramp up and for longer term succession planning, as many engineering staff face retirement in the next 10-15 years. He said the missing middle tier of trained technical staff between 30 and 50 was not unique to the UK, being a challenge also in other countries with Airbus facilities.


But he admitted that his company’s popularity meant that its key suppliers could be missing out on new recruits.

“When you talk to undergraduate engineers [about their job requirements] it’s not necessarily the financial offer but the conditions of employment, the company’s reputation, its growth path.  We are safe in this regard and that is not necessarily the case with our suppliers so I can imagine some of them find it very hard to be in competition with Airbus for the same resource .”

Airbus is in the process of increasing the production rate of long range aircraft from nine a month to 10 in 2013, with a plan to go to 11 by end of 2014.

“This depends on further developments on the EU-ETS carbon trade system, where a significant number of orders are on hold due to approval by the Chinese government,” said Butschek. “That will determine if we go for further rate increase in long haul aircraft.”

Production of the A380 is ramping up to a rate of three aircraft per month to keep to delivery obligations.

In October last year, Airbus UK in Broughton completed work on the new North Factory where all of the wings for the new wide body A350 family of aircraft are manufactured.

Before joining Airbus in March 2011, Butschek worked for Mercedes-Benz, DaimlerChrysler and other car manufacturers in global locations covering the Netherlands, South Africa and China.

A more detailed interview with Günter Butschek on www.themanfuacturer.com will follow.

Will Stirling