The UK may be where every Airbus wing is engineered and assembled, but in another part of the kingdom wing production is also critical to the prospects of the aerospace sector. With delivery of the first Bombardier CS100 to Swiss International Air Lines scheduled during Farnborough, and handover of the larger CS300 to launch customer Air Baltic due to follow later this year, the Canadian airframer’s Belfast CSeries wing plant is a vital cog in the programme and is ramping up output as the aircraft goes into volume production.
So far, 25 sets of CSeries wings have been shipped to Montreal from the 60,000m2 factory, opened in 2011 and part of the former Short Brothers complex that Bombardier acquired in 1989. The Northern Ireland plant manufactures the wing structure using a patented resin transfer injection (RTI) process. Although most of the wing components – such as ailerons, leading and trailing edges, and winglets – are built by suppliers, Belfast is responsible for the main composite structure as well as final assembly.
Belfast’s evolution from a factory building complete aircraft in the Shorts era, through specialising in a variety of other aerostructures for Bombardier and others from the 1990s, to its status as a pioneer in composite wing technology has been the result of a series of often ambitious investments and research projects over 40 years that are now bearing fruit, says Michael Ryan, vice-president and general manager of Bombardier Belfast. “We have been in composites for over 40 years, starting with the nacelle for the Rolls-Royce RB211,” he says.
During the 1980s and 1990s, Belfast continued to work on composites, developing ways of making them work on higher load-bearing structures for programmes such as the Bombardier Global Express. Initially, it was using what Ryan calls “traditional”, pre-preg methods, where the fabric from the supplier is already impregnated with resin. Helped by European and UK research funding, the company began experimenting with resin-injection and eventually came up with its RTI process. However, the question at the time, says Ryan, remained: “How do we make this competitive?”
It was only when the “technical solution and the business solution” met that Bombardier Belfast was able to move into wing design and production, he says. That business solution was the decision in the mid-2000s of the Bombardier board in Montreal to develop the CSeries, a narrowbody aircraft to compete with the smallest offerings of Airbus and Boeing. A wing solution was needed, and, in 2008, as the programme was formally launched, Bombardier committed to Northern Ireland’s largest-ever inward investment of £520 million ($800 million at the time) to build the CSeries wing facility.
For Ryan, the investment was about securing the future of the Belfast operation, which has endured frequent ups and downs in its many decades of operation, and currently employs just under 5,000 people. While Bombardier Belfast continues to work on aerostructures for its parent company and third-party customers, Ryan believes that developing the competencies to engineer and project-manage a composite wing is critical. “We will still build fuselages, but the wing is where the highest value is. We need to be at the higher end and the CSeries has allowed us to get into that market,” he says.
Ryan says that it is “only when you get into the factory that you can appreciate the scale and complexity of what we are doing”. When we visited in June, the plant was abuzz with activity but, early in the programme, looked like it had plenty of capacity to get busier. The factory is split in two, with staff in one building concentrating on installing the layers of material that are resin-injected and baked to form the large composite structures. In the other half, the structures are mated with the wing components from suppliers on enormous jigs and assembled for shipping to Canada.
Ryan is reluctant to disclose production targets, but says the CSeries is “the most ambitious ramp-up we have ever had”. Aside from the challenges of the technology, his team are also for the first time having to get used to managing a complex, just-in-time global supply chain, with partners including AAR, GKN, Salver, Sonaca and TAI. “The supply chain is critical and we are in the same position with this as an Airbus or a Boeing, with people working around the world to help us meet the ramp-up. We are managing the risks,” he says.
As the beneficiary of much research and development funding from both the UK and Brussels over the years, Ryan and his management team are concerned about the implications of the UK’s vote to leave the European Union. “We are where we are but the question is where we go from here,” he says. “I’m confident we will negotiate a position with the EU that works for industry, but the trouble is it could take a long time. We are in a long-cycle business, but if you miss one cycle, you could be out of the game for 10 to 15 years.
Referring to the clause in the EU treaty that would have to be activated for the UK formally to begin divorce proceedings, he says he is concerned about access to future Europe-wide grants: “Once Article 15 is put in place, future engagement becomes much more difficult.” As the boss of a subsidiary of a Canadian firm, based in a part of the UK where there have long been questions about national affiliations, Ryan will be hoping that Bombardier Belfast’s prowess in composite wings will be enough to keep competitive in an industry where technology and added value are king.
Source: Flight Daily News