The April 27 opening of GKN Aerospace’s new manufacturing and assembly facility for composite wing structures at Bristol in the UK represents a £170 million ($270 million) investment that the company believes will see it significantly boost its presence in the sector over the next 30 to 40 years.
The new 333,000-sq-ft facility, dedicated primarily to making wing spars for the new Airbus A350XWB widebody airliner, also produces spars for the A400M military transport. The new Western Approach factory stands just a few miles from GKN’s Filton facility, where it makes wing structures for the A320, wing trailing edges for the A380 and flap components for the A330. It represents a new level of automation, both in the manufacturing of the carbon-fiber wing structures at rates up to 10 times faster than hand-laid structures and also in the assembly phase with a new moving-line architecture.
GKN produces the six rear spars for the A350 wings. The automated facility assembles the wing fixed trailing-edge parts to the rear spars before the completed 89-foot units are delivered to the Airbus wing factory at Broughton in the northwest of the UK. The moving line uses automated guided vehicles to bring the wing structures through the various stages of assembly, where technicians conduct complex tasks such as five-axis machining, robotic drilling and laser scanning.
Due to enter service in 2014, the A350XWB has drawn orders for 555 examples. Airbus plans to build 13 shipsets per month by the time it reaches full production rates, sometime around 2016. By then, the new plant will employ 450 people—up from 300 today. At the opening ceremony GKN group CEO Nigel Stein called on the UK government to adopt a long-term strategy for the country’s aerospace sector that “transcends party politics.” UK Chancellor of the Exchequor George Osborne, who officially opened the factory, pledged further launch aid for aerospace investments and support for apprenticeship programs to develop the skills base. In Osborne’s March 2012 budget, he pledged approximately $100 million toward a new national aerodynamics development center for the UK.