FOCUS: The extraordinary A380 supply chain

Each A380 is made up of 4-million individual parts, but the plane itself is assembled in six sections that are built at five different plants around Europe and then transported by land, sea and air to a final assembly line in Toulouse.
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Emirates Airline recently ordered 36 Airbus A380 aircraft, 20 firm orders, with an option for an additional 16 at the same price. The deal, according to Shayan Shakeel at Arabian Business, has saved the A380 production unit at Airbus. But what does it take in terms of logistics planning to bring each of these monster jumbo jets together?

Every A380 has 4.5-million individual parts, and because the plane is so big, it needs to be built in four pre-fabricated sections, which are then all shipped or flown to the A380 Final Assembly Line (FAL) at Airbus’ Jean-Luc Lagardere plant. It is a facility built for this express purpose at Toulouse-Blagnac Airport in southern France.

One A380, to me, is six components -- three fuselage sections, two wings, and the horizontal tailplane

It's also the site of the Airbus corporate HQ and flight test department, and where single-aisle A320s and wide-body A330 and A350s are built.

Arnaud Cazeneuve, oversize surface transportation manager for Airbus, tells CNN that he doesn’t see a mega airliner of 4-million parts when he looks at an A380, he sees just six parts. “One A380, to me, is six components -- three fuselage sections, two wings, and the horizontal tailplane,” he says.

The FAL in Toulouse is essentially a giant, highly sophisticated do-it-yourself plane assembly kit, with the six major components all coming in by sea, except for the vertical tailfin, which is flown to Toulouse aboard one of Airbus’ specially designed Beluga air freighters.

The other massive sections of the world’s largest passenger plane are brought by sea, aboard specially designed Airbus vessels, to Pauillac, where Airbus has its own dock, where parts can be rolled off and on the vessels aboard custom-made trailers.

The six components come from five Airbus plants around Europe, each of which it itself getting supplies for parts from 1,500 companies from 30 countries around the world.

The A380’s wings are built in Broughton, Wales, while the fuselage sections come from Hamburg, Germany and Saint-Nazaire, France. The horizontal tailplane is made in Cadiz, Spain; and the vertical tail fin is also manufactured in Hamburg.

Arnaud Cazeneuve oversees the meticulously orchestrated logistical process of getting these sections of the plane from the various plants to the FAL in Toulouse.

Airbus has a fleet of three custom-designed breakbulk vessels for transporting airplane parts by sea, while five Beluga’s are used to fly sections around the Europe.

Each production plant puts the sections on the transport jig, and a special multi-purpose vehicle goes under the jig to move it

The roll-on, roll-off -- or ro-ro -- ships carry the six completed A380 sections from Airbus facilities in Wales, Germany, France, Italy and Spain, with no cranes or direct handling needed as the sections are grafted onto a transport jig at the plant where it is produced.

"Each production plant puts the sections on the transport jig, and a special multi-purpose vehicle goes under the jig to move it,” Cazeneuve tells CNN. “I don't have to touch the section, just transfer the component from one transport means to another."

In Pauillac the six sections are unloaded, and then moved to one of two barges for the next stage of the trip up river to Toulouse. Both barges make four return trips over eight days on the Garonne River, carrying the sections to Langon, 240-kilometres from the FAL in Toulouse.

In Langon, the sections are transferred to specially designed trailers for the overland part of the trip. It takes two full days to cover the distance, because the convoy of A380 parts can only be moved at night, when they’ll cause the least disruption.

The secondary regional road Itinéraire à Grand Gabarit (IGG) was specially modified to handle the extreme size of the A380's sections, a reflection of the importance that the French government places on the success of Airbus super jumbo concept.

The entire route was widened and edicated bypass roads were built, to make it easier for the convoy to navigate around some of the 21 towns and villages on the route, while roundabouts were rebuilt to allow the trucks to pass directly over the centre of the traffic circles.

According to CNN, Airbus paid 57% of the road upgrade cost of US $205-million, and the government paid the remaining 43%.

For Emirates alone, this entire project will need to be done up to 36 times.

The 240-kilometre route is closed in sections throughout each of the two nights, as the convoy is too wide to allow any other traffic. A calendar showing the planned convoy dates is made available to local residents, and they’re warned three days before each convoy via roadside display boards.

In the town of Lévignac, where it was not possible to build a bypass, the A380 components pass through the high street with just 50 centre metres of clearance either side. According to CNN, this is the one section of the convoy where each truck is accompanied by spotters, walking alongside the trailers.

Once through Lévignac, it's just an hour's drive to the FAL in Toulouse, where the sections are brought together on a giant assembly line.

For Emirates alone, this entire project will need to be done up to 36 times.

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