Airbus – A380

The following entry is a record in the “Catalogue of Catastrophe” – a list of failed or troubled projects from around the world.


Airbus SAS – France
Project name : A380
Project type : Commercial aircraft development
Date : Dec 2000 – Oct 2007
Cost : $6.1B in additional costs due to project delays*1

Airbus A380

The Airbus A380 (source wiki commons)

Synopsis :
I’ve often written about decision-making in the project environment and how the decisions made in a project shape the outcomes the project achieves. Often when a project gets into trouble it is the result of the interaction of many poorly made decisions. Occasionally it is a single decision that can be isolated out as the source of trouble. The Airbus A380 is one such project.

As the world’s largest commercial aircraft the Airbus A380 is a feat of engineering. With two full decks, a wingspan wider than a football pitch and space for up to 850 passengers (in high density mode), the A380 is the most complex aircraft flying today. While the aircraft has now been in operational service for 6 years, the project that created this behemoth suffered its fair share of problems and delays. Originally scheduled for delivery in 2006, the aircraft’s entry into service was delayed by almost 2 years and the project was several billion dollars over budget.

At the heart of the problems were difficulties integrating the complex wiring system needed to operate the aircraft with the metal airframe through which the wiring needed to thread. With 530Km of wires, cables and wiring harnesses weave their way throughout the airframe.  With more than 100,000 wires and 40,300 connectors performing 1,150 separate functions, the Airbus A380 has the most complex electrical system Airbus had ever designed. As the first prototype (registration F-WWOW) was being built in Toulouse France, engineers began to realize that they had a problem. Wires and their harnesses had been manufactured to specification, but during installation the wires turned out to be too short. Even though the cables were at times just a few centimetres too short, in an aircraft you can’t simply tug a cable to make it fit.  As construction of the prototype continued Airbus management slowly came to the realization that the issue was not an isolated problem and that short wires was a pervasive issue throughout the design.

Internal reviews identified that the heart of the problem was the fact that the different design groups working on the project had used different Computer Aided Design (CAD) software to create the engineering drawings. The development of the aircraft was a collaboration between 16 sites spread across 4 different countries. German and Spanish designers had used one version of the software (CATIA version 4), while British and French teams had upgraded to version 5. In theory, the fact that the design centers were sharing their drawings meant that the electrical system designed in Germany would be compatible with the airframe components designed in France. Part way through the project the design centres also started integrating their diagrams into a single 3D Digital Mock-up Unit (DMU) that should further have validated compatibility. Unfortunately, the construction of F-WWOW demonstrated that theory and practice are not always the same thing.

In part the problem was the CATIA version 5 was not a simple evolution from version 4, it was a complete rewrite. Reports indicate that the calculations used to establish bend radii for wires as they wove through the airframe were inconsistent across the different versions of the software and that inconsistency resulted in the problem. Stripping out the wiring from the prototype, redesigning the wiring, making new harnesses and then rethreading the wiring into the airframe became a monumental task. Taking months to complete the project was delayed multiple times as hundreds of engineers tried to overcome the problems. At one point more than 1,100 German engineers were camped out at the Toulouse production facility trying to rectify the problems.

The root of the problem can be traced back to a single decision: the decision to proceed with the project despite the fact that two CAD systems were in use. That decision resulted in design inconsistencies, mismatched calculations and configuration management failures.

As for many failed decisions there is a lot of context that lead up to that decision. Much of that context had to do with the history of Airbus. Prior to the 1960’s each European power had its own aerospace industry. As aircraft development projects became larger, more complex and more risky, these separate entities found it hard to compete. To overcome the problem European governments began cooperating with each to integrate their individual aerospace expertise into an organization that was large enough to compete with the US based Boeing Commercial Aircraft company. Originally set up as a consortium of separate organizations, Airbus’s first aircraft (the A300) became operational in 1974. Several highly successful aircraft designs followed and by the late 1980’s the consortium was able to compete directly with Boeing. Building on those successes Airbus took the next step and became a single corporate entity in 2001.

As those who have done merger type projects know, merging disparate entities into a single homogeneous whole is not easy. Because of their differing origins, different parts of the organization inherit different corporate cultures, management styles and IT systems. Those differences can be both hard and expensive to overcome and at Airbus a number of such differences were still deeply entrenched when the A380 project began. Even at the very top of the organization there was an elaborate split between French and German control (co-CEO’s) and in 2001, when the A380 Program Manager attempted to move the German designers onto the same CAD system as the French, he met a wall of resistance. Personal rivalries and national pride*2 are reported to have been issues that stood in the way and ultimately the pressure to keep the project moving forward meant that the CATIA version issue was never resolved. Five years later that issue was to cost him his job and he resigned as part of the house cleaning that resulted once the magnitude of the issue became clear.

Eventually F-WWOW did fly (first flight video) and the aircraft is indeed a wow. However, that one small decision point became the seed from which a billion dollar delay matured. Of course, interoperability of design tools is not only an Airbus issue. In today’s complex integrated supply chains, stories of failed configuration management during the design process are a sadly all too common.

Contributing factors as reported in the press:
Configuration management failure. Overly complex organizational structure that attempted to keep different parts of the organization happy rather than focusing on how best to build the aircraft. Failure to form a single project team across the multiple design centres in use. Overly aggressive schedule leading to schedule pressure such that key issues were ignored early in the project lifecycle. Failure to address issues when they were first identified resulted in snowballing costs and significantly higher costs once the problems were finally faced up to.

Related stories:

  1. Boeing 787 Dreamliner

Reference links:

  1. BBC – Q&A: A380 delays
  2. The Airbus saga: Crossed wires and a multibillion-euro delay
  3. Airbus Vows Computers Will Speak Same Language After A380 Delay
  4. What Grounded the Airbus A380?
  5. Airbus: First, Blame the Software
  6. A380 Program Update – Global Investor Forum – Oct 2006 (see slide 13 onwards)
  7. EADS execs pledge to restore confidence in Airbus, fix A380 problems