Baptiste Morin 06h20, July 12, 2023

This Monday in Blagnac, near Toulouse, Airbus inaugurated a new assembly line in the Jean-Luc Lagardère hall where the A380 was manufactured for fifteen years. This ultra-modern facility should enable the European aircraft manufacturer to accelerate the production of its most sought-after latest-generation aircraft, including the A321.

When you enter the "Jean-Luc Lagardère hall", you just have to look up to see under the 46 meters of height the only vestige of the past activity of the site. A photo of 30 meters by 10 of the A380 flying over the Pyrenees. That was almost twenty years ago. Airbus had built this oversized building 80 meters long by 73 wide and 120,000 square meters, the equivalent of 500 tennis courts, especially to assemble the largest long-haul in history.

Today, the demand from travelers and companies has changed. It turned to lighter, less energy-intensive aircraft that could fly partly with plant-based fuel. The "Jean-Luc Lagardère Hall" has therefore been converted to produce A320 family aircraft and in particular A321, Airbus' latest generation medium-haul aircraft. The gigantic building houses an ultra-modern assembly line, designed in consultation with Airbus "companions", those who are already working on a first A321 that will be delivered early next year to a customer airline whose identity is carefully kept secret.

An ultra-modern assembly line

On this "FAL" (for "final assembly line"), no more papers. "Operators have smartphones and tablets that allow them to view the tasks they need to perform at any time," says Marion Smeyers, assembly line manager. Behind the white cabins where operators are stationed around a fuselage, forklifts operate without drivers to transport pallets of equipment. "We have automated the local logistics, the last meters between the intermediate stock and the airlocks where we assemble the parts," says Philippe Lassus, responsible for this automated logistics, "these forklifts are controlled with a 3D camera and follow a circuit determined beforehand." Four employees supervise the machines and intervene in the event of a problem. Eventually, they will be responsible for 24 automated forklifts at this site.

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And the robotization of the line does not stop there. Airbus also uses it for the drilling of fuselages with the "flex track". "There are two rails that are suction cupped along the sections and the robot walks between the two rails and comes to drill where it is needed," explains Marion Smeyers. "Usually, the holes are done by hand. There, for the first time, we implemented this technology on a final assembly line." The "flex track" relieves operators and ensures a better quality of drilling. Airbus focuses on people. But there is also a logic of productivity behind this "ALF".

Airbus, victim of its success, must produce more

Because the aircraft manufacturer must ramp up. "Twice as many orders this year for Airbus than for Boeing, it deserves a thunderous applause for the company," said Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire, who was present for the inauguration. But the European group must ensure these deliveries. In the last 6 months alone, more than 500 A321s have been ordered from Airbus. "The A321 is today the most efficient in terms of fuel consumption, that's why we have a very big demand for this aircraft," acknowledges Guillaume Faury, Airbus CEO, "it is more than half of Airbus' order book, more than 60% of single-aisle aircraft orders, so we have a major challenge which is to be able to deliver aircraft because demand is now greater than our ability to deliver."

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The "Jean-Luc Lagardère Hall" is one of Airbus' major levers to meet demand. The new assembly line compatible with all A320 family aircraft will also be able to produce A231 XLR, the single-aisle long-haul aircraft unveiled by the Toulouse aircraft manufacturer at Le Bourget in June, which consumes less energy, and whose demand should increase very quickly. Eventually, 700 employees will work on the assembly line, which is intended to be duplicated. Thanks to it and its production sites in Germany, China and the United States, Airbus wants to grow from 45 aircraft delivered each month today to 75 by 2026.