When Airbus decided to revolutionise the wing manufacturing process for the new Airbus A350 XWB, one of its key suppliers had to completely rethink how it could provide a manufacturing system to aid production and turned to Bosch Rexroth for help.
The Airbus A350 XWB twin engine jetliner is one of the most eagerly anticipated new aircraft currently being built. Described as “the future of air travel” the A350 XWB (the XWB stands for extra wide body) has already taken 548 orders without even leaving the factory for the runway.
The wings for the new aircraft are manufactured at the Airbus facility at Broughton near Chester in the United Kingdom and Electroimpact, one of the world’s leading designers of tooling and automation for the aerospace sector, were contracted to design and construct the manufacturing system.
The company has previously worked on a number of Airbus projects and has been responsible for providing the wing manufacturing systems for the A320, A330 and the A340. A more recent high profile project was the Airbus A380, which is the world’s largest commercial passenger aircraft to date.
However, it is not only the design of the Airbus 350 XWB which is state-of-the-art. The manufacturing process for the wings has also been revolutionised.
“Airbus has had a complete change in philosophy about wing manufacture on the A350 XWB, going from a vertical build, with the leading edge pointing to the roof during assembly, to a horizontal build - the first time this has ever been attempted by Airbus,” says Damon Griffiths, project support manager at Electroimpact.
He continues: “A key advantage of horizontal wing manufacture is the use of a pulse system during the wing build, which is a first within the aerospace business”
With the new process, the horizontal wing, which measures 33 metres in length, is moved around the factory during process in pulse, without the orientation of the wing changing during the course of the build.
Automatic guided vehicles (AGVs) transport the wing around the factory as opposed to the traditional overhead cranes for vertical manufacture. With the new process, a wing assembly jig holds the wing in place whilst the top and lower covers are placed around the skeleton with a series of drilling, bolting and tacking operations.
Modern wing manufacture is highly automated in order to speed up the manufacturing process, with many of the rib to spar assembly operations being performed by machines which are integrated with manual operations where necessary.
However, the Airbus decision to horizontally manufacture was not without its issues. “Horizontal manufacture involves having the wings high enough off the ground for the machines to pass under, in particular the lower drilling, bolting and lower tacking machine,” says Damon. “Secondly, it creates means of access issues for the operators who require under-cover (ie. under the wing skin) and under-structure access.”
With this in mind, project managers for Electroimpact realised that a new design of access platforms would be required to work on the new wings and turned to Bosch Rexroth for help.
“We had certain key criteria for the new access platforms to help us overcome the issues with horizontal manufacture,” he says. “Firstly, the access platform heights would be driven by the build network throughout the length of the wing.”
“Secondly, ergonomics were a key design aspect of the platforms which meant we needed to take into account the curvature of the wing to ensure access at the correct height position and in turn minimise strain on the human body.
“Thirdly, we needed to integrate the point-of-use principles for manufacture as it was essential we had as many facilities as possible, such as pneumatics, air and electric points, close to the operation.
“Finally, we wanted maximum flexibility, in terms of movement of the lower access platforms, with a solution that was versatile enough to be deployed by two men in the required tack times and robust enough to withstand some harsh treatment.”
The solution was to create a total of four bespoke inboard platforms and 36 bespoke lower access platforms, all made from aluminium profiles and accessories. The platforms would be utilised within the manufacturing cells during production to form a complete platform throughout the length and width of the wing.
The inboard platforms, measuring approximately 14 metres long and 6 metres wide are manoeuvred into place at the widest part of the wing using a large AVG underneath the chasis of the platfrom. In addition, the 36 lower access platforms use hinged flip flooring as part of their features. When the platforms are being used in production they then link together like a jigsaw puzzle to create one single platform.
Both the inboard and lower access platforms have drop down guarding, point of use services and lighting in the floor amongst their many features. Bosch Rexroth also provided access steps, handrails for fencing between production cells and flag carts for the storage of components.
“In all the Rexroth platforms cost more than £0.75 million, offering enormous advantages compared to a heavy, fixed, welded structure,” says Damon. “The platforms offer a more costs effective solution overall with its modular design and construction providing more flexibility during manufacture and for ongoing modifications onsite, importantly without taking away the platforms from the customers.”
“We have delivered a solution to access all areas of the wing with minimal additional equipment and given Airbus the chance to construct the new wing in a safe manner.”