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Traveling Light: GE Composites Give Brand New Airbus Jet a Lift

GE has started building an advanced composites plant that will supply lightweight wing components for one of the world’s most innovative passenger planes, the Airbus A350. The jet had its maiden flight on June 14, on the eve of the Paris Airshow.

GE Aviation traditionally makes high-end composites for next-generation jet engines like the GEnx and the LEAP. But the A350 will be the first passenger jet using advanced GE composites inside its structure.

GE is building the new $50 million, 100,000 square-foot composites plant in Hamble, U.K., near Southampton. Workers at the plant will use an advanced manufacturing method that combines vacuum and heat to harden the composite wing components. Engineers call this method “out-of-autoclave” because it skips a step that involves a kind of giant pressure cooker ovens called autoclaves to manufacture the parts.

GE will make the fixed trailing edge on each of the A350’s wings. The plane made its maiden flight on June 14 in Toulouse.
Photo credit: Airbus

The technology will allow the plant to accelerate and simplify production, and allow GE Aviation to deliver 13 sets of the wing components per month by 2017.

Each set contains more than 3,000 deliverable components, mostly carbon fiber composite panels but also machined aluminum alloy rib assemblies and fittings.

The components form the fixed trailing edge on each of the plane’s wings, which span more than 200 feet. John Savage, a senior engineer at GE Aviation, said that the new technology was “a major technological breakthrough in lowering the cost of composites manufacturing”. It will help GE meet “the demand for a rapid ramp up and high volume production, early product maturity together with high performance, and reduced environmental impact,” Savage said.

Airbus said that over 70 percent of the A350’s air frame was made from “advanced materials, combining 53 percent of composite structures with titanium and advanced aluminum alloys.”

There are three versions of the A350 twin-engine jet capable of holding from 250 to more than 400 passengers. Airbus has already secured over 670 orders for the next-generation aircraft. First deliveries of the plane are expected in 2014.

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