The transformation underpins one of the toughest challenges faced by Airbus in its 44-year history: switching to a new model of best-selling A320 at the same time as embarking on a steep ramp-up for its new carbon-composite wide-bodied jet, the A350.
"Imagine building a skyscraper with 30 floors and over $100 million in value. Then imagine you are asked to ...deliver a skyscraper every day. In terms of value and complexity that is what A350 production is," Klaus Richter, the ex-BMW procurement chief who now oversees a $40 billion Airbus supply chain, said.
"A construction company would go crazy. You would have teams working on the lighting, and one week later, you would have 3 skyscrapers behind them waiting," Richter said.
Richter is drawing on experience in running one of the tightest auto supply chains to help Airbus in a new contest with its U.S. arch-rival Boeing, this time over production strategy.
Boeing and Airbus´ industrial war plans will determine investor returns and development cash for years to come and influence the fate of new entrants like China and Russia.
Source: Qatar Airways
With up to 80% of manufacturing dollars spent externally, the supply chain is a crucial front in the battle. In 1990, Airbus ordered 6 billion euros of parts a year. By 2020, its procurement bill is set to reach 50-60 billion euros.
"That illustrates how enormous the development has been over time and why we have to industrialize," Richter said, referring to the move from a "workshop" culture long on customisation towards higher volumes and the intuitive flow of an auto plant.
Source: Qatar Airways
To achieve this, Airbus is relying increasingly on 'series production' techniques as well as managers such as the tall and unflappable 50-year-old Richter and former Mercedes executive Gunter Butschek, the Airbus operations chief.
Boeing led the way in adopting just-in-time "Lean Manufacturing" inspired by Toyota in the 1990s and its coloured progress charts have become a common sight, including at Airbus.
Based on https://www.flickr.com/photos/aircrafts/15770731640/
But industry watchers say Airbus is now driving automotive techniques deeper into its organisation and spreading the transformation to the supply chain more widely than before. "Airbus are doing better than they used to, and better than Boeing, in handling their supply chain right now," said Richard Aboulafia, vice president of consultancy Teal Group.