One of the big changes when Airbus unveiled its market-driven XWB revamp of the A350 back in May 2007 was the new structural concept: a fuselage constructed of 12 panels of carbon fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP) mounted on frames of aluminum-lithium alloy.
Two years later, while John Leahy, Airbus chief operating officer for customers, was announcing yet more sales of the new model here at Le Bourget in 2009, at Nordenham in Germany newly formed Premium Aerotec (Hall 1, E320) was delivering the last of four CFRP fuselage shell demonstrators, a door frame shell, for qualification testing by Airbus in Hamburg.
Now it is focusing on the real thing: in March the Airbus subsidiary finished curing the first production example of the biggest of the 12 shells. More than 64 feet long and 1,000 sq ft in area, the forward right-hand side panel will be integrated with left and upper shells to form the forward fuselage barrel.
Established at the beginning of 2009 and combining EADS’ Augsburg plant with Airbus sites in Nordenham and Varel, all in Germany, Premium Aerotec subsequently added the Airbus parts factory in Bremen and built a new production facility at Brasov, Romania.
For the A350 the company is building the complete forward fuselage section 13/14, including the titanium/CFRP door frames and the aluminum-lithium-titanium alloy floor grid, plus the rear fuselage section 16/18 side shells, aft pressure bulkhead, door frames and floor grid. It has installed big new autoclaves to cure the shells at Nordenham (section 13/14) and Augsburg (section 16/18), while the Varel plant, which specializes in production tool development and design as well as machining, will produce the forward and aft floor structures. Total investment in the program amounts to around $500 million.
Production of fuselage panels started last June in the new 300,000-sq-ft A350 production hall at Nordenham, using a fiber placement machine to build up the panel on a layup tool before curing in the autoclave. Floor structure production started in January with the cutting of the first floor beams in a new high-speed aluminum cutting center at Augsburg, where a 270,000-sq-ft production hall has been built to manufacture the CFRP shells.
Premium Aerotec Varel also makes the aft pressure bulkhead for both the A350 and its rival widebody, the Boeing 787. The bulkheads, like the cargo door for the A400M military transport, are fabricated using the EADS-patented vacuum-assisted process. Fabrication using VAP infusion is 20 percent faster than traditional methods and uses less energy.
Premium Aerotec’s former Airbus plants make parts for other Airbus families as well as the A350, while Augsburg has produced more than 300 center fuselages for the Eurofighter Typhoon. And increasing production rates for the A320 and A330, alongside the ramp-up for A350 and A400M production, are keeping both factories and development engineers busy: as well as hiring more production specialists, the company expects to need dozens more composite engineers, particularly for design and stress analysis.