Not too long ago, passenger jets were made mostly from aluminum and steel. But over the last two decades, they started putting on lighter frocks made from high-tech materials called composite. Airbus’ latest plane, the A350 “Extra Wide Body” jet, is perhaps the most fashion-forward aircraft in this space. More than half of the plane’s airframe and skin is made from composite materials.
Some of those composite parts are being manufactured at a GE factory in Hamble-le-Rice near Southampton, England. The place has a rich history, having supported the world’s main aircraft manufacturers for over 78 years. But it also has an ambitious future. GE is building new composite facility in Hamble, as part of a $50 million investment focused on developing new composites manufacturing technologies.
Top image: A winglet of an Airbus A350 (above). Images credit: Joao Carlos Medau
A composite part looks like a high-tech sandwich with alternating layers of carbon fiber sheets and resin. It can be as strong as steel or aluminum but much lighter.
Traditionally, workers stack the layers at a workstation and move the part to an industrial pressure cooker called an autoclave. They fill the autoclave with inert nitrogen gas and apply heat and pressure to “cure” the part. The pressure squeezes out air bubbles from voids between the layers and the heat makes it tough.
The new method used by workers at Hamble partially skips the pressure cooker step and allows workers to speed up production. (It’s actually called out-of-autoclave.) They use vacuum to suck out air bubbles between the layers before they toughen the part up with heat.
The A350 XWB is the first civilian plane with parts made by this new method. John Savage, a principal engineer at GE Aviation, called it “a major technological breakthrough” . He said that it would help GE meet “the demand for a rapid ramp up and high volume production.”
The new composite plant will open next year, but workers in Hamble are already making wing parts for the A350 XWB, including the longest version of the plane, the A350-1000, which is three quarters of a football field long from nose to tail and can ferry around 400 passengers.
The components are part of the wing fixed trailing edge package. Each package comprises of some 3,000 items such as structural composite panels and complex machined parts.
The Hamble plant is getting busy. The first A350 plane flew in 2013 and Airbus already has 750 orders.
Top image: Airbus, which assembles its aircraft in Toulouse, France, expanded its oversize Beluga fleet to prepare for the A350 XWB production ramp-up. The Belugas transport aircraft parts to Toulouse from all over Europe. Image credit: Airbus