Company outing

Airbus is evolving into a Factory 4.0

On this journey, the aircraft manufacturer will leave none of its employees by the wayside.

One could say that there is a huge amount of work to be done, but that would still be an understatement. So Stephan Röpke uses a story to illustrate what the future will look like for him and his colleagues at Airbus in Hamburg-Finkenwerder. “Imagine you are a building contractor,” the Cabin & Cargo architect says. “And it has taken you a year to build a 30-storey tower for about 100 million euros. Then you are told: ‘And now we need a finished building like this every six hours.’ This is the challenge we face.” To keep up with growing air traffic, Airbus wants to build more aircraft at increasing production rates. In 2016, 42 A320 aircraft were delivered per month. By 2019, monthly production is set to rise to 60. “We have to ramp up our production rate significantly,” Stephan says. “Our key lever for this is Industry 4.0.” That means automating production by means of digital technologies. The engineer spent a year helping develop the concept for a “Factory of the Future”, where human operators collaborate with robots to carry out processes that are planned in virtual reality. A digital backbone supplied with real-time data from all business departments will integrate multiple sources such as supply chains, operational and IT infrastructures that Airbus still manages through several different tools today.

In the Factory of the Future, “design engineers will be able to see immediately how their designs are impacting production,” Stephan explains. “And since everyone involved is always aware of any components that will be delivered late, for example, they can re-schedule their work at an early stage.” This will help Airbus to stay on track and ensure transparency. “Everyone will stay abreast of the build status of a given aircraft at any time.” In 2017, Airbus is launching a whole range of research projects related to aircraft manufacturing 4.0.

One focus of this research is on the qualification of personnel. “Airbus wants to make its workforce fit for digital transformation,” says Jan Balcke, Head of Vocational Training. To make sure that especially older employees are not left behind, Airbus is collaborating with universities, research institutes, and social partners, among others, to explore the following question: “How are workplaces and qualification requirements evolving in the course of technological change in the aviation industry?” According to Jan, this process will not be all smooth sailing. But chances are good that the majority of employees will benefit from an Industry 4.0 world of work. Airbus’ job is to make people understand that nobody will be able to avoid adjusting to new technological conditions.

“We are embarking on a journey without really knowing where it will take us,” says Marco Wagner, Senior Vice President Human Resources. However, the manager expects visible results in two to three years, when initial findings regarding the aviation industry 4.0 will be implemented in design and manufacturing processes. Dedicated activities have already been launched at all sites, and not all of them are about technology. “The projects that focus on HR are equally important to us,” explains Marco. According to him, there is no alternative to Industry 4.0. “We have to make sure our sites remain competitive. And that requires some quantum leaps.”

Helmut Monkenbusch