Aerospace OEM Airbus’s competitive response to the Boeing 787 Dreamliner is the Airbus A350.
The ongoing grounding crisis surrounding the Dreamliner program has been precipitated by unresolved issues involving its lithium-ion batteries. It should therefore be little surprise that yesterday, rival Airbus announced that it was dropping its previous choice of lithium ion battery power for the A350, in favor of conventional nickel-cadmium battery systems.
The A350 has had its share of previous program delays brought about by the design of more technologically advanced, lightweight composite materials and by various issues involving the global supply chain. As direct competition to the 787 Dreamliner, it is rather late to market, to state the obvious. Airbus expects first flight of this aircraft to occur sometime this summer, with aircraft certification expected sometime in 2014.
According to reporting in today’s Wall Street Journal, Airbus officials indicate that the decision to move away from lithium ion battery power was prompted primarily by schedule, rather than safety considerations. The aircraft is already configured with four individual lithium ion batteries, with the first flight aircraft utilizing this configuration. Airbus plans now call for certification of the A350 with the conventional battery design.
Our readers will obviously come to different conclusions regarding this decision, depending on context, whether design focused, or program focused. In our view, it is good business sense to make this design change now. We note that conclusion from two perspectives. Depending on the final outcome of the ongoing Boeing investigations, there could be additional implications and/or directives associated with the use of lithium ion technology, implications that could add more supply chain turmoil or delay to production schedules. Airbus product design and supply chain teams can now prepare for conventional battery power. Second, with this decision, Airbus adds an additional industry differentiator among the A350 vs. the 787, more conventional and reliable battery backup power, as well as a clearer path to certification and volume production. Again, depending on the final outcome of the ongoing 787 investigations, that differentiator can loom large for current or prospective airline customers.
No doubt, some within Boeing’s supply chain universe will cry foul with the Airbus decision, kicking a competitor hard in the midst of crisis. However, Boeing’s best option is to continue to work toward a speedy and practical resolution of the current crisis, whether it includes sticking with the current design or moving to a more conventional battery power design. The decisions made at this point in time are very key determinants of how each of these aircraft will ultimately fare in the market.
Meanwhile for Airbus, a practical assessment of risk has led to an asute business decision.