October 22, 2012
Credit: Photo Credit: Mark Wagner/aviation-images.com
Guy Norris Bristol, England
With the wing of the Airbus A350 already under close scrutiny before the first flying example has been put together, key suppliers are focusing more than ever on a steady production ramp-up and delivering to specification.
Despite the news earlier this year of delays to the delivery of wings for the first flight-test aircraft, as well as for the fatigue-test article, major A350 wing sub-assembly suppliers continue to accelerate their production processes. Although development issues with automatic drilling machines have been fixed, Airbus has acknowledged an expected related delay of around three months to first deliveries of the initial A350-900s in early 2014.
The European manufacturer is therefore looking to its complex supply chain for even sharper performance as it seeks to smooth out any remaining kinks in its production system. GKN Aerospace, which is responsible for the A350 aft composite spar and fixed trailing edge, has a pivotal role in the production flow, as it perfects new assembly concepts in a £170 million ($274 million) purpose-built fully automated facility near Bristol.
Five complete A350 wing sets, including static and fatigue units, have so far been delivered from GKN's Western Approach plant to Airbus UK's wing final assembly facility at Broughton, North Wales, where the complete wing is integrated. The company took over the lease for the site, originally designed to be a distribution center, in April 2009. “When GKN acquired the facility, it was an empty shell,” says Vice President Steve Colebrook, who adds that “we broke ground in May 2009 and laid foundations in July that year.”
The initiative traces its roots to 2008, when GKN launched an aggressive growth plan for its aerostructures work by acquiring Airbus UK's wing component manufacturing and assemblies operation in nearby Filton for £136 million. “It was aimed at keeping the wing center of excellence in the U.K.,” says Colebrook. “The A350 was originally due to be housed within that but because of its size and magnitude it was moved here.”
Currently employing almost 270, the workforce at the Western Approaches facility is expected to grow by another 60 or more as the rate increases on the A350 as well as for the composite wing on the A400M military airlifter, major sections of which are also manufactured here.
The facility is made up of two main buildings, one of which is a climate-controlled, clean room area for the layup and fabrication of the large-scale composite structures, and the other an “industrial area” where the assemblies are completed. Although the composite manufacturing area is state-of-the-art with advanced automated fiber-placement (AFP) machines for the A350 and conventional automatic tape-laying for the A400M, it is in the assembly building where most of the production innovations are to be seen.