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Building the wings of tomorrow

Mike Richardson visits the National Composites Centre to see how the facility’s new High Rate Deposition Cell is set to revolutionise the future of aircraft wing production.

The NCC has opened its doors to demonstrate what it claims is the most advanced composite manufacturing capability in the world. Its latest centrepiece employs robots working in what it calls a High Rate Deposition Cell that can layup 5m wide and up to 20m long composite plies in one movement. According to the NCC, the cell will revolutionise the production of aircraft wings, reduce the number of individual components and increase the production rate.

The sheer scale of the manufacturing cell – which employs automation technology supplied by Güdel, Coriolis and Loop Technology – the two bridges are 7m high by 13m wide and run along a 26m track, positioning two huge robotic arms to within 0.2mm.

Funded, in part, by The Aerospace Technology Institute in collaboration with the Local Enterprise Partnership and the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, the technologies on display demonstrate an ambitious, £36.7m investment programme (iCAP) to deliver ten digital technologies and teams of specialist engineers, all working under one-roof to build a unique composites testing ground for industry.

A digitally bright future

One major iCAP project is linked to the ‘Wing of Tomorrow’ programme. Launched by Airbus, this partnership involves a number of companies including, Spirit AeroSystems and GKN. So, now that we’ve seen a demonstration of how it all connects together, what’s next for the NCC and will productionised parts be made in earnest?

“It might look like an industrial-scale cell, but it’s actually the first generation of high rate deposition cells,” begins the NCC’s chief technology officer, Enrique Garcia. “When we started to think about designing the cell, we wanted it to be really flexible. Although we’re focused on delivering the Wing of Tomorrow programme, we want to ensure that beyond this, we have the flexibility and opportunities to work in other sectors as well.

“We expect to gain a huge amount of knowledge – both from the manufacturing processes and the design and simulation tools, but I would also expect any aerospace OEM that takes this technology further to actually specify a solution that is more tailored to their needs. The manufacture of a wing cover, for example, probably won’t require so much of the ‘bells and whistles’ technology, i.e. the data capturing and data logging that the NCC can provide. Instead, there may be scope to develop the next generation of end effectors (heads) that are perhaps a little more capable. We’re primarily developing the technology, and when it needs to go into production, it will become the second generation of production cell. The NCC can take these kinds of risks to see if we can make it happen, make it viable and make it commercially available, and then essentially target the ways of minimising the risks for our customers in investing in this kind of technology.”

No doubt about it then, this is the kind of exciting stuff that makes me wonder whether all the aircraft wings of tomorrow will be made this way in the future?

“We will see,” states Garcia. “There has also been a lot of development in traditional metallic wing construction that will actually compete with what we’re developing here. The bonding of different wing parts is something that will remain, but in terms of how composite materials will compete with its traditional metallic counterpart, hopefully we will ensure that composites are their preferred technology of choice for wings.

“We’re also looking at Out of Autoclave (OoA) solutions – which is the right thing to do in addressing very high production rate demands, but perhaps this isn’t the right technology for every aircraft programme. Maybe it means using the more traditional composites and the way they have been manufactured so far could prove more viable. The really interesting aspect about all this is that we’re developing something that will unlock very high rates for single-aisle passenger aircraft. We’re also opening the opportunity of using this beyond single-aisles by developing another type of technology to choose from.”

Capture all the knowledge

I’m interested to know how the NCC’s work is helping to enable the industry to become smart and connected through the networking of equipment and effectively store manufacturing process data. Is digitalisation and automation also ‘dark arts’ in that customers don’t always understand the long-term gains and payback?

“If you really want to take full advantage of composites, you do need to marry design and manufacturing from the beginning. Digital engineering is about demystifying and really opening up the use of composites to a wider audience. We’re trying to ensure that through automation, we obtain the reliability and through digital engineering, we capture the knowledge of those people that possess a lot of experience. It’s about capturing this data and translating it into tools that people with a lot less composite knowledge can quickly use.

“We want to develop these digital technologies and tools that allow you – without necessarily being a composite expert – to get to an answer that is around 80% right and then you will probably need people like the composite experts to tweak that extra 20%. We want to ensure that composites can be more easily used. I believe digital engineering will do that for us. Through the use of digital engineering and digital tools, we will be able to digitise all the knowledge, get the answers faster and be more certain that we’re actually getting the right answers.”

In terms of the evaluation tools, does Garcia think that the industry understands the full value proposition of fully automating composite parts production.

“We’re not suggesting that full automation for every single part is the right answer, but getting to a point where we can perform in-process monitoring – even if it’s manual layup and where the production rate is really low. Let’s see if it is possible to laminate – and even if it is not – let’s capture as much of the correct data as possible. It’s extremely important that we manage to explain properly what the automation of composites manufacturing can actually do. Even when automation doesn’t make sense economically for a technical business, we can still use digital technology.”

It’s time to deliver

At the culmination of the project, Garcia says that in looking back, he’s really satisfied with how the NCC has matured as an organisation. Establishing its processes and methods, the challenge of installing and commissioning ten pieces of equipment all happening concurrently, whilst at the same time producing parts and carrying out R&D for its customers is certainly no mean achievement.

“One of the things I really enjoy about working at the NCC is how excited the people here are about pushing the boundaries,” he concludes. “The maturity of the entire process and how much we’ve learned is something that I probably expected, but not to this extent. What has really surprised me is how efficient we were in terms of purchasing the equipment and developing the capability programme.

“Nevertheless, there’s no time to relax. The iCAP programme is happening and we are ready – now we have to deliver. We have the Wing of Tomorrow programme to contend with, and this will be one of our key deliverables. All we’ve done so far is get the equipment ready and acquire the knowledge of how to use it. Now the really challenging part begins!”

An ultrasonic cutting table is capable of processing 20m x 5m plies


  • Emersons Green, Bristol BS16 7FS, UK
  • National Composites Centre