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Photo | Bosch Rexroth AG

This assembly fixture offers both machines and fitters sufficient clearance for access to every part of the wing, at all times.

Working on the ground

March 2013

 

A revolution in wing construction: Airbus turns manufacturing from vertical to horizontal.

 
 

The Airbus A350 XWB (“extra wide-body”) is one of today’s most eagerly awaited new aircraft. Although not a single plane has yet left the factory, 548 orders have already been booked for the so-called “future of air travel”. Airbus decided to revolutionize the wing manufacturing process for this highly coveted airplane. The manufacturing operation at the Airbus factory in Broughton, Great Britain, is now a real jewel.

“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,” confirms Damon Griffiths. He is project support manager at Electroimpact, one of the world’s leading designers of tooling and automation for the aerospace sector. That firm was contracted to design and construct the manufacturing system. The skeleton for the wing rests on an assembly jig while the skin panels are attached top and bottom in a series of drilling, bolting and tacking processes. Most of this work is fully automatic.

There is one fundamental advantage to horizontal orientation during manufacturing. The wings, 33 meters long, can pass through the entire construction process without being rotated. Low-slung, driverless vehicles are all that’s needed for motion, doing away with the need for traditional overhead cranes. But there were many new challenges, as well, and it was here that Electroimpact brought Bosch Rexroth on board as a project partner. The first issue was that the wings had to be at a height providing perfect access for everyone involved – for both men and machines. And here it was necessary, as well, to take account of the curvature of the wing. The system was also to be expandable through time so as to accommodate any changes in manufacturing.

The solution: The assembly fixture comprises four larger and 36 smaller platforms that can be assembled, much like a jigsaw puzzle, to form a complete, scalable configuration. Each individual platform is made up using Rexroth aluminum profiles. The company also delivered steps, handrails and other accessory components. “In all, the Rexroth platforms offer enormous advantages com-pared to a heavy, fixed, welded structure,” Griffiths notes. Not only are they cost-effective, but they can also be rearranged if and when necessary. Airbus can thus count on having a dependable and highly sensible wing construction concept in the future, too.