Airbus leads UK initiative to sharpen composite wing manufacture

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AirbusUK division is spearheading a three-year development programme to improve wing manufacturing processes, particularly with composite technology, in order to protect the country’s aeronautical industry.

The Next Generation Composite Wing is a £103 million ($200 million) scheme which features 16 other companies including Bombardier Aerospace, GE Aviation, Goodrich, GKN, Messier-Dowty and Spirit AeroSystems.

Speaking to ATI at an event in London today to detail the programme, UK secretary of state for innovation John Denham said that the programme was part of a collaborative effort to co-ordinate regional technology investment at a national level.

He describes the project as “absolutely central” to achieving the aim of positioning the UK as a centre of innovative aerospace capabilities.

The Government-initiated Technology Strategy Board, a business-led public organisation set up to support research, is contributing £25 million to the programme. Another £26 million will come from regional development agencies.

Airbus and the other industrial partners will provide the other £52 million. During the event today Airbus executive vice-president for programmes Tom Williams told ATI that he thought the UK had “some ground to make up” against other countries – not just in Europe but in Asia and North America – in order to ensure it could stay competitive in composite manufacturing.

Williams says the programme will concentrate on developing efficient manufacturing processes for available composites. “The focus is not to invest in new science and new materials,” he says. “The question will be – with a next-generation aircraft – how do you [apply composites] in an industrialised way?”

He points out that such manufacturing processes would potentially have to support production of an Airbus A320 or Boeing 737 replacement at the rate of 40 aircraft per month.

“We’d want to do that economically. We’d have to ensure that we could work the ramp-up,” says Williams. “What’s the combination of materials, processes and tooling that would let us do it? The problem is that we have lots of ideas – by 2010 we need to hone these down.”

UK manufacturer GKN, which is planning to acquire Airbus’ UK wing-design plant at Filton, says it expects composites to account for 60% of the bare-structure weight of a future 150-seat aircraft.

It says its involvement in the Next Generation Composite Wing programme will involve studying optimised factory layouts for high-rate production. It will also look at new developments in composite tooling and coatings to extend tooling life.

“We view this research as a key enabling programme, taking the UK capability in the vital area of wing manufacture forwards significantly,” says GKN Aerospace senior vice-president of business development Frank Bamford.

GKN adds that the programme will build on work performed under the European Union’s ‘Advanced Low-Cost Aircraft Structures’ and ‘Integrated Wing’ initiatives.

Technology Strategy Board chief executive Ian Gray states that one of the organisation’s main aims is to invest in high-value manufacturing technologies to benefit UK industry. He adds: “I want to ensure that we get from this programme what we’ve said we’re going to get.”

Other participants in the new wing programme include Advanced Composite Group, Aircraft Research Association, Atkins, Delmia UK, Eaton Aerospace, GE Digital Systems, Hyde Group, KuKa Automation, Qinetiq and Morgan Professional Services.