Increased demands in performance and production rates require a radical new approach to the design and manufacturing of aircraft wings. At Airbus Filton, a multi-functional team is leading a European network which is working to create the wing of tomorrow.
No-one can be sure what the next generation of aircraft wing will be. It may be shaped differently or assembled in a new way. However, one thing is for sure: with aircraft production rates set to ramp up significantly, wings will need to be faster, easier and cheaper to make and assemble.
“The Wing of Tomorrow Programme started life a number of years ago and is the biggest research and technology programme taking place in the whole of Airbus globally,” stated Airbus’ Head of the Wing of Tomorrow programme, Sue Partridge. “For the UK and particularly for the South West, Airbus’ wings are an essential driver to the ongoing investment that we have in our industry. The fact Airbus is putting in so much emphasis and investment into this programme sends a really strong message. This programme will help us prepare for our next product launch by developing technologies ‘out of cycle’, so that we’re mature and ready when we launch the next generation of aircraft.”
“When that next product launch happens, it will require a lot of careful thought. The Wing of Tomorrow programme will ensure that when we do make that decision, we’re ready to go and we’re not going through the historical process of launching a product and also developing the technologies and capabilities while we’re designing the product, with the unwanted pressure that this can bring.”
Reduced time to market
According to Partridge, reduced time to market is going to be essential when Airbus does decide to launch the next programme, and it will need to be in the market much quicker than ever before. In today’s aviation climate, high rates of production are an absolutely essential driver.
“Through the development work and the wing demonstrators we’re building, we’ll understand the capability, scalability and limitations of these technologies, because some of them may not necessarily work. The key point is to have learnt something during the process. Understanding the scalability and limitations will prepare us industrially, for the next programme. It’s a huge ‘out of cycle’ investment, but it’s vital for the business, and for the aerospace industry as a whole. This isn’t just about Airbus doing things on its own – this requires forming a huge partnership with the entire industry.”
Why is Airbus doing this? According to Partridge, managing the transition from today’s aircraft to the next generation is critical for Airbus’ business.
“We need to carry out this programme so that when we launch a new product, it can enter into service within a five-year product development cycle, whereas normally it takes eight years. We’ve some significant targets for this programme. The first one is our ‘cash operating cost improvement target’ because the product that eventually goes into service will need to perform even better than our existing products.”
The programme is also investigating different wing sizes. Long, narrow wings can offer a high lift-to-drag ratio, which could improve fuel efficiency. However, wing length is restricted to a maximum length by airport regulations, which is why the team is experimenting with folding wing tips that could be extended before flight and folded back on the ground.
Partridge continued: “Technologies need to be ramp up and rate capable. Regarding recurring costs, this programme involves a much bigger, more complex and more up to date wing with new materials and higher performance targeted for it to be - at worst, no more expensive than today’s A321 wing – and, it needs to comprise mature technology too. If we’re to ramp up quickly, we will be driving for maturity through taking risks on this programme so that the next programme manager after me won’t need to take the same risks. The Wing of Tomorrow programme is an excellent vehicle to develop and demonstrate not just physical technology, but also digital capability.”
Making material gains
A greater use of composite materials also opens up new possibilities in terms of wing configuration and construction, as fewer individual components are required. Airbus is working closely with the National Composite Centre (NCC) in a bid to push the boundaries of composites manufacturing way beyond the current capabilities.
“The main strategy means working hard to develop recurring costs-compliant carbon fibre structures, i.e. how can we make a composite wing cheaply and at very high rate. It requires huge investment and crucial partnership with the NCC - and also a very important involvement with GKN Aerospace and other partners on this aspect of the programme too.
“We’re looking at new ways to use integrated systems, to include cost reduction, productivity and new approaches to assembly and automation. We’re aiming to deliver three, full-size wing demonstrators. The first one will be tested to understand the structural capabilities of the new technologies we’ve developed, the second will be fully-equipped and the third will be used to test our rate capability.
“We’ve decided on the performance optimisation and the planform for the demonstrator by making it very challenging on purpose, because we’re trying to establish where the ‘cliff edges’ are and where the limitations are. The architecture of these demonstrators is a very extreme corner of the envelope, so it should cover all the bases. We’ve made our technology choices and by making them for the demonstrator, we need to keep our options open because we’re aware that some of those technologies won’t be the ones we eventually select.
“We’re doing this in two ways. Firstly, by having multiple options on the wing demonstrator we can use it as a playground to try out as many different technologies as possible and then understand the trends between them. Secondly, where we cannot implement every technology we want to try on the demonstrator, we can instigate parallel, sub-scale lower level demonstrators within the programme. We’re now into the definition phase for the demonstrators and will then move into delivery of the first main wing demonstrator, starting its assembly in quarter 3 of 2020.”
Establishing building blocks
Significant infrastructure investment started on this programme many years ago. Today, the Airbus Wing Integration Centre at Filton is operational and it’s where the wing will be tested. The company will also take space at the AMRI Welsh Government-funded facility, managed by the AMRC and located near Broughton on Airbus land. This is where Airbus will build the demonstrators with the intention of moving into the building in Q3 this year to install its assembly infrastructure.
“This programme is all about Airbus getting ready to ‘design for industrialisation’ by designing industrial systems in parallel with designing the wing, rather than designing the wing and then trying to work out how to make it afterwards. We’re not designing for weight – we’re designing for assembly
“We are going to use what we’ve learnt on the Wing of Tomorrow to understand the trade from the demonstrator baseline to different potential product configurations. By capturing the knowledge, we’ll understand the real benefits and how to use various technologies. We’ll understand risk, explore mitigations to those risks and embed that knowledge into the concept design phase of our next product.”
Partridge added that the Wing of Tomorrow is a vehicle to develop Airbus’ digitalisation capabilities and build the ‘digital thread’ throughout the process, so that one set of data can seamlessly be used throughout the whole process.
“We have a number of use cases established to really understand how the ‘digital thread’ can work and how we can leverage these digital capabilities and make them ready for the next product. Another key output of our programme – as well as the knowledge and mature technologies is the digital twin’ model.”
The Wing of Tomorrow programme is supported by a whole ecosystem not just around the UK and in the South West, but also in countries including France, Spain and Germany. Airbus has what it terms its ‘plateau’ for the co-located multi-functional team that is driving the programme forward in Filton working closely with fuel and landing gear colleagues.
“Whilst there is a huge amount of work going on with the NCC, we’re also working with all the other Catapult sites around the UK. We also have 30 companies engaged as partners on the Wing of Tomorrow programme. There are many existing suppliers and also some new suppliers to Airbus and wing manufacturing in general, so it’s really refreshing. It’s a real partnership that is about working together, because our partners are developing the technology and developing their own capabilities through being involved in the programme as well.
“In terms of the technologies we’re developing with these partners, we need to use this programme to drive the maturity, so we understand there is some kind of track record for this technology that enables us to select it for the next programme. We need to understand rate capability because it’s such a key driver and we also need the right contractual framework around this, so that as we develop IP and technology together with our partners, we can have access to that.”
With such a range of factors to consider, creating the wing of tomorrow will be no easy task, but this is the challenge facing Airbus’ Wing of Tomorrow programme. There’s no winging it here – Airbus’ wings will be built more efficiently, at a lower cost and significantly faster than ever before. These are the kinds of goals any aerospace manufacturer would be proud to achieve.