With headquarter in Toulouse, France and fully-owned subsidiaries in the United States, China, Japan, India and the Middle East; spare parts centers in Hamburg, Frankfurt, Washington, Beijing, Dubai and Singapore; engineering and training centers in Toulouse, Miami, Wichita, Hamburg, Bangalore and Beijing; more than 150 field service offices around the world and with final assembly lines in Europe, China and the U.S, Airbus is certainly one of the biggest and most comprehensive airplane manufacturer in the world.
The founding of Airbus Tianjin Assembly Line in 2007 - a joint venture involving Airbus, Aviation Industry Corporation of China and Tianjin Free Trade zone – has marked a milestone in the history of the company.
We have interviewed Mr. Ralf Stuecker, Head of Operations, to find out how a first class company runs its operations in China.
1. Can you give us some information about your personal and professional background?
I am a qualified Industrial Engineer with some years of service as an officer in the German army. My career in Airbus has begun in 2000 in Customer Services. During that time I have not only travelled a lot all around the world, but I have also got to know our customers, their way of working with our products and of course their perception of Airbus and Airbus aircraft. After a few years I have moved to the production environment. I have been responsible of different teams in Manufacturing Engineering of A380 section assembly in Hamburg before I became Head of Assembly Lines for A350 fuselage sections in the Hamburg plant. Since August 2014 I am the Head of Operations of the A320 Final Assembly Line in Tianjin.
2. Tell us about your company and activities in China.
Airbus has a large presence in China and has developed comparably fast here. The fleet of commercial aircraft operated in China along with Chinese airlines has grown with an immense speed and Airbus has contributed a lot to the development of civil aviation in the country. In 2016 we reached a market share of 50% with 1383 aircraft operated in China. In 2005 we were only at around 250 aircrafts. The operation of the Airbus fleet in China is the largest Airbus aircraft fleet in the world by country. With the A320 family representing the biggest family, it has been logic to get closer to the market and set up a Final Assembly Line here. We have a high presence on this important market which is not only shown through our customer services but as well as by assembling aircraft at the market and delivering them directly to our Chinese customers.
3. What are the main challenges you encountered operating an international business in a Chinese environment?How did you tackle them? Has the application of Lean practices helped you in this?
There is no doubt that you have to understand the Chinese culture and mindset to be able to work with the people and our partners while at the same time our employees, local partners and suppliers have to understand well our expectations, our company culture, our way of working and our quality mindset. Our aircrafts assembled in Tianjin are Airbus aircrafts made in China which do not show any difference in their parts, their quality and the assembly processes compared to aircrafts assembled and delivered from the other Final Assembly Lines in Europe. Our customers take delivery of aircrafts from Hamburg, Toulouse and Tianjin at the same time and there has to be no difference of any kind between aircrafts coming from these different locations. Thanks to this, an airline has the flexibility to operate and maintain their fleet without any limitation.
Lean elements are an essential part to achieve and secure this and manage our assembly operations. Daily SQCDP meetings on all levels are the backbone to manage the shop floor. This supports us in managing the teams, the assembly progress, identify deviations as early as possible and launch corrective actions. Apart from that visual management and 5S are important elements to manage the shop floor. It is at the same time an important bridge to communicate expectations and targets to our teams while they can feedback and escalate in case they detect deviations, are disturbed or need support.
4. Can you describe how an airplane is assembled at Airbus Tianjin, what the main stations are and what their TAKT is?
We receive the major components e.g. fuselage sections, wings, horizontal and vertical tail plane, from our plants in Europe. In our flowline hangar we have five stations. In the first three stations we prepare the junction of the forward and aft fuselage section, perform the fuselage junction and join up the fuselage with the wings. In these stations we do not only perform structural work but in parallel also connect systems as well, which are installed already in the components e.g. electrical installations, hydraulics and fuel system. During the remaining two stations we complete the systems and install the cabin. In parallel we perform system tests. When the aircraft moves out of the flowline everything except the engines is installed and integrated. The flowline runs in a five day takt, in other words each week an aircraft leaves the flowline. After that, the aircraft moves into the paint shop before it gets into the final phase where engines are installed and final system tests are done. Once that is completed the aircraft passes an important milestone and can be handed over to flight line. In flight line the aircraft will be tested under real conditions on ground e.g. engines run for the first time, and eventually performs its first flight. When the aircraft is attested to be ok, it can be handed over to the Delivery Center for delivery to the customer.
5. How do you train your employees? Do they need to undergo through a specific plan in order to achieve international level skills?
Our employees have to bring already a basic set of skills and experience to join us. When they start working with us they run through a standard program to obtain their required level of authorization which includes on the job training and which takes around 18 months. The requirements which they have to fulfill are similar to those in Europe so that in the end they are on the same level and would be capable as well to work on the same station in another FAL, in Europe or the US. On top of that we have different levels of quality authorization which are the same as in Europe.
6. At Staufen we believe that regular communication, visualization and a proper Shop Floor Management are key-factors for running operations smoothly. What is your opinion and what has Airbus Tianjin done in this regards?
I fully share that believe as it is the only way to continuously exchange with your employees, know the condition of the shop floor and understand the challenges and complications. Finally it is necessary to manage stable processes and secure the desired level of quality. We actually work exactly this way. In the morning our managers have no other meetings or obligations than taking care of their shop floor management. We have an SQCDP cascade according to which we have a standard agenda which we follow every morning from 8.00 am until noon. This helps our employees and managers on all levels to understand the manufacturing progress and possible deviations. At the same time challenges can be addressed to the next level and support can be requested.
7. How much of an impact has the application of Lean practices and methods had in the success of your business?
An essential one. Especially in an international and intercultural context it helps as it eases communications and setting targets and it simplifies the operational management. But it helps as well to secure processes and quality which is crucial in our business as we operate in a zero-defect and zero-tolerance environment.
8. In an interview released at the Farnborough International Airshow in 2012, Mr. John Leahy – COO-Customers of Airbus – said that China is sure to become the single largest market for aircraft in the world. A few years later, do you agree with his statement and how does this impact your work?
Absolutely. We can see that not only from the numbers. We can recognize that also from our customers who have developed/operated large fleets and shown great professionalism and for sure express their needs and expectations very clearly as well. At the same time we recognize it through the authorities which focus a lot on the airline operations and their safety. They are well aware of the importance and the sensitivity of the growing fleet and the increasing density within the airspace.