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Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

Making Plane Sense

I hope you will excuse me for writing about my summer holiday here, but I came across the most inspiring illustration of partnership working whilst I was away and, as partnership working becomes more important to our Sector, it is an example that has something to say to us.

I took the family, including a plane mad son, to the Visitor Centre at Airbus in Toulouse, and I have to say it was an experience from the top drawer, showing how all-age friendly and informative a visit to a manufacturing facility can be. Cadbury – eat your heart out!

Airbus 380Airbus Industrie was spawned in 1970 as a consortium  of European aviation manufacturers, including the UK’s Hawker-Siddeley, by their respective governments, to help them compete in the global market. Today it is a successful aircraft manufacturer, producing nearly half of the world’s jet airliners. This includes, of course, the largest, the A380. Carrying, typically, between 500 and 600 passengers on two decks, it has more room per passenger and greater carbon efficiency per passenger than traditional long haul craft.

It was an A380 assembly plant that we had the privilege to see in Toulouse. We took a lift to a viewing platform, high up at the end of an incredibly large hanger in which three A380s were being fitted out. What was staggering, though, was the process for creating the shell of the aircraft and bringing it all together in Toulouse.

The wings are made at the former Hawker Siddeley plant at Broughton, near Chester. Fuselage sections are made in Hamburg, underbelly and tail sections in Cadiz.

Beluga Transport PlaneTransport infrastructure to get the elements to Toulouse has been created from scratch, including the re-engineering of the Airbus A300 into the dolphin shaped Beluga transport plane (only 5 in existence, used to transport smaller components) and three roll-on roll-off ships, the ‘Ville de Bordeaux’, ‘City of Hamburg’ and ‘Ciudad de Cadiz’ (I guess ‘Village of Mostyn’ would not have the same ring to it), designed from scratch to carry the larger wing, tail and fuselage sections.

The journey taken by every completed wing is quite staggering. It is taken to a specially constructed barge, the Afon Dyfrdwy, waiting on the River Dee near the Broughton plant. Only when the tide conditions are right can it be taken fifteen miles downstream to a custom built berth in the Port of Mostyn for transfer to one of the ships.   

These all run a constant circuit from Hamburg to Mostyn to Saint-Nazaire to Cadiz to Bordeaux, collecting different plane sections as it goes and delivering enough main sections to build one plane in Bordeaux. Again, they go onto a river barge, this time to navigate the Garonne as far as Langon.

Convoy MobilisesThe final 200 kilometres must be tackled by road. A convoy of half a dozen slow moving oversize loaded vehicles travels only at night and spends the intervening days in specially built secure stopping off locations en route. All of this happens once per week.

By now you are probably thinking as I did – why bother? Why not build the whole damned thing in one place. Airbus claims, though, that it makes negligible difference. All of that transport infrastructure costs less than a halfpenny in the pound in relation to the cost of the plane! So, the earth has been moved (literally on roads between Langon and Toulouse) to make the A380 a true international consortium collaboration – and a success story.

So, what conceivable relevance has making planes in Toulouse got to supporting people in Solihull. I believe that what has been achieved by Airbus demonstrates three things very clearly:

  • that several small and disparate organisations struggling to make an impact in a marketplace can bring their skills and experience to a collective table and work together collaboratively and, as a result, make a huge impact, achieving more and establishing greater sustainability as one than they could ever dream of on their own.
  • that even if such collaborations demand moving mountains and creating new vehicles to make them work, that can be a small price to pay for the difference it can make.
  • that the long term result of such collaboration can be mould-breaking innovation,  solutions with extra dimensions and bigger, better outcomes.