Farnborough Air Show

GKN Puts Technology First

 - July 14, 2014, 6:50 AM
A GKN technician at an electron beam melting (EBM) machine, which permits toolless additive manufacturing that can create solid titanium objects–such as wing ribs from powder–rapidly and cost-effectively. Below, a GKN technician works on a composite spar assembly of a rear trailing edge.

Rich Oldfield, GKN Aerospace technical director, told AIN that technology remains at the heart of the company’s ability to succeed in the market and it invests heavily, especially in composites, metallics and developing a “niche portfolio in transparencies, protection systems and coatings, which many of our competitors don’t have.” Alongside this are “important technologies in inspection, assembly and automation.”

He reflected on industry achievements over the past 12 months such as the A350 first flight and certification of P&W’s geared turbofan. In that time GKN has “launched four additive manufacturing centers, opened a GKN office in Bangalore, expanded U.S. technology activities and [achieved] key business wins [such as] the 737 Max winglet.

“Technology insertion is a key part of our strategy…underpinning it is support we get from local regions,” he said. He also added that the UK’s Aerospace Growth Partnership, in which GKN CEO Marcus Bryson is heavily involved, is a “key part.” Oldfield sits on the AGP’s technology working group which was involved in launching the UK Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI), established as part of the “lifting off” strategy for UK aerospace using a commitment of $1 billion from the UK government and an equal amount from the industry. Meanwhile, Oldfield said, “We are also developing a training academy within GKN.”

Bryson, who was present at the pre-Farnborough briefing in London, praised the current UK government for being so proactive in supporting the industry, support that was a long time coming in this way.

Oldfield said there are four main drivers for GKN:

•To deliver on existing contracts;

•The technology insertion campaign;

•To secure positions on strategic platforms (such as the 777X);

•To develop long-term production positions.

Oldfield said additive manufacturing had been a particular focus for GKN over the past few years, and it is now “flying on the [A350] XWB in the shape of intermediate compressor case parts.” He continued, “Underpinning all that is materials know-how–how they behave and the manufacturing processes. The advantages are weight reduction of parts and structures, cost-reduction and lowering of aerodynamic drag.” Oldfield sees opportunities on a range of programs such as the A320neo, 737Max and A350-1000.

He added that GKN is “in the process of manufacturing a laminar-flow wing that will be tested as part of the Clean Sky program.” The company is also working on the open-rotor engine program, “machining components that will go on to the open-rotor test bed.”

It’s not all about composites, however, with advanced metallic also getting a lot of attention, plus techniques such as laser-wire deposition, already certified for use on the A350’s landing gear doors “for adding features.” Oldfield said the company is “looking to expand this to other parts.”

Growing Bits

Techniques to grow components, such as wing ribs from powder, are also developed. “The technology is in the early stages but you can see the potential it has,” he said. Titanium alloy is a particular focus as well, such as titanium aluminide for engine parts, he added. “The industry behind it is maturing–the two big risk items are the stability of the supply of the powders to the quality you need, and if the equipment is stable and mature enough to be a steady-state production solution.” He said, “For us the starting point is to look at our core bill of materials to see if anything can be improved using additive manufacturing…for example, on a bracket you might have an opportunity to save 20 to 30 percent of the cost, just as a direct substitution. The second wave will be truly optimizing how you manufacture, with the key being how you combine processes, and knowing when to use them.” Overall, he said, additives are “fueling a comeback for metallics,” which also means a focus on “taking the weight out of carbon [structures].”

Having acquired Volvo Aero, GKN now has significant relationships with all the three major engine manufacturers; it already works closely with Rolls-Royce but now it has “big technology programs” with Pratt & Whitney, such as the geared turbofans, and some with GE. On the military side, it has gained a significant role on the Saab Gripen fighter, as well.