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Alenia says it’s on time in 787 catch-up

 - February 11, 2008, 11:10 AM

According to Alenia Aeronautica, it is meeting its commitments as a supplier for the Boeing 787 and has not contributed to the delays the program is suffering. The Italian company delivers complete composite fuselage sections to Global Aeronautica, its joint venture with Vought in Charleston, South Carolina, which subsequently adds components to the structures before shipping them to Boeing’s final assembly line in Everett, Washington. Boeing has identified the Charleston operation as part of the problem with its complex 787 supply chain.

Alenia has told AIN that its Grottaglie factory in southern Italy is on schedule to deliver the first two preproduction sets of fuselage sections (numbers 44 and 46), as well as the first four production sets. Last month, it reported that progress with production sets five through nine is well advanced, and that work has just started on the 18th set. As for the 787 stabilizer, manufactured at Alenia’s Foggia plant, following the delivery of the first two preproduction sets, two more sets were recently delivered and the third was due to be dispatched early this month, along with the fifth fuselage set. Stabilizer sets four through six are now in the assembly phase and work has just started on set number nine.

Right after Boeing’s January 16 announcement of further delays in the 787 program, Alenia’s parent company, Finmeccanica, issued a statement saying that there will be no adverse financial impact on its balance sheet as a result of the anticipated delivery delays. The group appears to have considered possible delays when preparing its budgets for the current financial year.

Currently, aerostructures represent about 20 percent of revenues at Alenia Aeronautica but the company aims to increase its presence in this field, bringing it to 30 percent in 2010–trebling this segment of its business through further increases in technology, added value and production volumes.

 The 787’s fuselage sections are being built using “one-piece barrel” technology to maximize the amount of composite materials and to avoid the use of thousands of rivets typical of aluminum fuselages, saving between 15 and 20 percent in weight. The process involves a computer-controlled robot applying layers of carbon fiber on a huge mold to give birth to a single-piece section. The section has to be baked in a large autoclave because the 787 fuselage measures about 19 feet in diameter and the larger sections made by Alenia Aeronautica are more than 49 feet long.

For the 787 program, Alenia formed a new subsidiary called Alenia Composite at the purpose-built Grottaglie site, where it erected a 682,000-sq-ft building. The runway of the nearby airport was extended from 5,500 feet to 11,500 feet to allow operations of the transport aircraft that carry Dreamliner subassemblies. Overall, Alenia is investing about $1.3 billion in the 787.

Global Aeronautica is responsible for joining and integrating fuselage sections manufactured by Alenia and Vought. While Vought produces aft fuselage sections (numbered 47 and 48), Alenia produces center fuselage sections 44 and 46. Section 44 is almost 28 feet long in the basic version of the new widebody airliner, while the length of section 46 varies from 33 feet to about 50 feet. The Italian facility’s 2007 output was two shipsets per month and should increase to seven by the end of this year.

The overall process comprises five steps. First the composite materials are laid on a proprietary high-tech mandrel. The machine has a rotating system that allows it to lay-up the materials during both the forward and return movements.
Second, the composite material is bagged and cured in the big 52-foot-diameter autoclave. Third, composite barrels are drilled and trimmed to cut windows, and so forth. Then, nondestructive inspections are carried out using ultrasound before fasteners and other systems are installed, and fifth, each part is prepared for shipping (painting is carried out in Charleston).

The production time required for sections 44 and 46 has been about six months, but the target time by the middle of this year is four months. Some time saving has been realized between the first two shipsets. For instance, the stringer load processing for the first shipset took a whole week, while for the second it took four days. Even the loading of the two fuselage sections onto the transport has accelerated, with the second shipset loaded in just 90 minutes versus the scheduled four hours. Alenia is now working on shipset 4.

The Grottaglie plant was built with a view to possible extensions that may be needed if production increases to more than 10 shipsets per month. In that eventuality, the clean room will have to be enlarged to host a double production line, while a second clean room likely would be installed to minimize risk.

Alenia is also involved in the production of the 787’s horizontal stabilizer and the multi-spar box structure was developed at the company’s Foggia plant. The stabilizer structure is based on two joined carbon fiber boxes, each 66 feet long and weighing 1,190 pounds–the biggest composite monolithic structure ever built for a commercial aircraft. The largely automated manufacturing process starts with 27 wet uncured components that undergo a one-shot autoclave polymerization cycle.

Overall, Alenia accounts for 14 percent of the 787’s structure. Around 150 people work exclusively on the program at Foggia, while the Grottaglie plant provides more than 500 jobs.

Meanwhile, Alenia Aeronautica’s Aermacchi subsidiary is responsible for the design and production of the 787’s elevator, as well as for the fan cowls. The elevator was designed at its Venegono plant, which has also prepared all production tooling. Aermacchi will provide Goodrich with the fan cowls for both 787 powerplant options–the General Electric GEnx and the Rolls-Royce Trent.