Paris Air Show

GKN Aerospace Commits to Technology, Expansion

 - June 19, 2019, 2:26 AM
At this GKN Aerospace production facility in the UK, workers are focused on developing large-scale thermoplastic primary aircraft structures for an unnamed major customer.

GKN Aerospace (Chalet B379) is increasing investment in its four global technology centers (GTCs) in 2019 while also expanding capabilities that are “driving company growth.” Revenue in 2018 was just over £3.5 billion ($4.5 billion).

Claiming to be a technology leader in additive manufacturing (AM) with components flying on multiple platforms, GKN is introducing at Le Bourget new AM programs in engine systems and aerostructures. “AM transforms metal manufacture, dramatically lowering critical ‘buy-to-fly’ costs by producing complex near-net-shape geometries with lower material waste and at reduced cost in energy and carbon emissions,” according to GKN, which was acquired by venture capital company Melrose last year.

GKN Aerospace's composites activity aims to improve each step of manufacturing, “from high-rate automated deposition to alternative curing and joining methods, rapid non-destructive testing, surface protection and coatings, and automated laser repair of damaged structures.”  Composites work at the company's Dutch global technology center (GTC) is focused on development towards large thermoplastic primary structures, working in collaboration with a major customer.

GKN centers in the Netherlands, Sweden, the UK, and the U.S. are “collaborative spaces for research and talent skills development,” within academia, the company's supply chain, and local ecosystem networks. Each center focused on a specific technology, including AM, thermoplastics, and “smart” aero-engine systems.

In aircraft transparencies, GKN Aerospace is developing hydrophobic-coating technology further. “The permanent surface treatment delivers in-flight/ground-operation rain shedding and significantly enhances resistance to surface abrasion,” said the company. The technology, which could eliminate the need for windscreen wipers and de-icing fluids, is undergoing performance assessment in U.S. flight trials and with Airbus on its test aircraft. 

GKN group owner Melrose has supported the long-term growth strategy GKN Aerospace had in place at the time it was purchased. Last year's investment was its “highest ever” at more than £75 million, with planned 2019 total investment “set to be higher still.” Investment has included a new GTC strategy and specialist technologies.

GKN Aerospace,  Bristol, U.K.
When it’s completed in 2020, GKN Aerospace’s Bristol, U.K. facility will serve as a center for innovative technology aboard the next generation of fuel-efficient aircraft. The company expects the facility to eventually house some 300 engineers focused on aircraft structures.

A new GTC to be launched in the UK next year will lead advanced-composites work for the Airbus "Wing of Tomorrow" program and will be the base for key AM activity. The center will continue to focus on GKN's energy-efficient aircraft technology and to accommodate technical skills development in the UK.

GKN's wing-of-tomorrow work involves a partnership with Airbus aimed at delivering key enablers for a major development (or replacement) of the A320 single-aisle family, according to engineering and technology senior vice president Russ Dunn. These include: a rapid production-rate ramp up to 60-100/month two years after start; 100 percent quality; a reduced launch period, to five years from offer to market to service entry; and lessons learned from legacy programs, for example, immature technologies inserted into production.

GKN reports investment of more than £20 million in the program's engineering integration and development, comprising four elements: composites and metallic wing ribs; integrated fixed trailing-edge assembly; 17 meter long single-piece composites rear spar; and wing trailing-edge equipping.

Other efforts are aimed at developing new design tools, methods, and people to exploit AM using a data-driven material-centric approach and an additive-industrialization program that uses “Industry 4.0” automation and data exchange and simulation to develop laser metal deposition with wire (LMD-w) and powder-bed technologies.

Scheduled to open by year end is GKN Aerospace's GTC at Hoogeveen in Holland that will complement the UK center and be used in “leveraging thermoplastics for the future.” A 2,000-sq-m shop floor will include multifunctional demonstrator-build areas, while 300 sq m of office space will support 30 full-time equivalent jobs. New equipment for out-of-autoclave processing is expected to offer 30 percent lower energy consumption and CO2 emissions.

Also in the Netherlands, GKN Fokker has been part of Fokker and Gulfstream Aerospace research and development to produce an area-ruled thermoplastic composites fuselage panel. This aims to demonstrate a 30 percent weight-reduction potential compared to aluminum and lowest-cost composites-panel concepts. 

The GKN Aerospace Innovatum GTC in Sweden will be expanded and updated to create Innovatum 2.0 by increasing shop-floor, office, and training space and incorporating Industry 4.0 manufacturing-technology demonstrators.

GKN Aerospace has set up a new Special Technologies (ST) division (previously called Special Products), overseen by ST chief executive Gavin Wesson. Last year, the division saw sales worth £200 million, representing about 5 percent of gross revenue, as the company made a “significant” investment of £50 million in core technologies activity.

The manufacturer identifies “attractive specialist positions in niche markets,” claiming to be number one in electro-thermal ice protection, military canopies, and airliner passenger-cabin windows; and second in the provision of flight deck windows and rotorcraft fuel tanks. 

Global Expansion Efforts

As GKN Aerospace continues to strengthen its global network, the company has been analyzing the ST division footprint and setting a long-term strategy, including expansion in the U.S. and establishing a presence in Asia.

In the U.S., the manufacturer proposes additional investment to strengthen its position on the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, for which it provides the cockpit canopy from a Florida facility, and to transfer its U.S. military fuel and flotation systems from the UK to Alabama. Overall, some 20 GKN Aerospace sites contribute to the F-35, while the company said it is also set to benefit from growth in F-15 and F/A-18 aircraft work.

Military sales account for almost 30 percent of GKN Aerospace revenue and the manufacturer foresees special-technologies opportunities for U.S. military markets.

Asia ambitions include entering the China aftermarket, increasing its share of the transparencies market, and developing manufacture of specialized rubber fuel tanks for helicopters in India with partner Godrej Aerospace (including support for customer offset needs).

GKN Aerospace wants to develop new materials to exploit aircraft electrification to reduce ice-protection system power requirements, while also exploring niche technologies and market opportunities. Other plans include qualifying a new hydrophobic flight deck window coating, as well as investment in passenger-cabin window automation and its UK fuel and flotation systems facility at Portsmouth.

The manufacturer has been rationalizing its UK business, including planned closure of the Kings Norton factory by mid-2021. “Our work packages at Kings Norton are predominately based on high-volume single-aisle transparencies, [which] are commoditized products," GKN Aerospace told AIN. "The work will transfer to other GKN Aerospace sites and low-cost areas. This will be a two-year program, and full details are still being finalized.”

The manufacturer is at pains to emphasize that it is also making big investments in UK facilities. This year, such investment includes £13 million in the Portsmouth fuel and flotation facility and £32 million in the British GTC in Bristol: “We are very committed to the UK,” the company concluded.