To understand how a new Falcon jet gets built, one must begin at the company’s heart, which isn’t at the headquarters in Saint-Cloud near Paris but resides at a seemingly jumbled mass of old and new buildings farther south in Biarritz, France.
The plant has a long history in aerospace manufacturing, starting in 1936 as a Latecoere factory that was purchased by Breguet before World War II, then by Dassault in 1971. The company did pioneering work in metal bonding with components made with an aluminum honeycomb core, using an autoclave purchased in the 1960s that still is running today.
Now more than 1,000 people are employed at Dassault’s Biarritz factory, many from the third generation of families who have worked there. The buildings enclose more than 70,000 sq m (753,474 sq ft), with 8,000 sq m dedicated to composite manufacturing.
It is in Biarritz that the ribs that form the structure of the first part of a new Falcon jet are assembled to build the combination fuel tank and center section. The machined ribs are made at Dassault’s factory in Seclin.
The center section is massively strong, not just to contain the fuel it holds, but because it supports the Falcon jet’s wings and fuselage. On the outer sides of the center section, the outboard rib forms a thick, precision-machined surface onto which each wing is bolted. Such is the accuracy of the robotic hole drilling and perfectly flat shape that Falcon wings are interchangeable. It takes about 20 days to manufacture a Falcon center section.
Once the center section is complete, it is mated with the rear fuselage, also built in Biarritz, and upper fuselage panels and other components made at Dassault facilities. Then this big assembly is shipped to Argonay, where it meets up with the nose section built there. At Argonay, technicians install all the systems, wiring, and other guts, after which the completed fuselage travels to Bordeaux for final assembly. Wings are manufactured in Martignas, near Bordeaux.
Obviously there is a lot more to the work that is done to bring a new Falcon to life, including many more components, flight controls, instrumentation and avionics, engines, etc.
At Biarritz, Dassault’s experts have developed impressive skills at manufacturing composites, including the carbon-fiber of the Rafale jet fighter. These are made by a layout machine that places thin strips of fiber into precise positions to make a wing that ranges in thickness from 34 to 6 mm. The 6X nose and tail cones are also made of carbon-fiber at Biarritz, with a different robotic fiber-placement machine.
The Biarritz composites team gained great experience early on when it built an all-composite wing for a Falcon 10, and this flew from December 1985 to 2005. The Mirage III fighter’s composite rudder was a successful early effort in composites construction for Dassault, weighing 23 percent less than a metal counterpart. The Falcon 50 was the first aircraft certified with a critical component made of composites—an aileron.
Biarritz also has developed expertise at resin-transfer molding (RTM), where resin is pumped under pressure into a mold that contains carbon-fiber elements such as skins, spars, and nickel leading edges, forcing the resin in the correct proportions between the fibers. Once the resin is injected, it is warmed by pumping hot oil inside the mold, and then the part is cured at higher temperatures. Falcon 7X and 8X vertical fins and Falcon winglets are made using the RTM process, which can make components much faster than other methods.
The Rafale airframe is 28 percent composite, and Falcon jets are increasingly employing composite construction. The Falcon 900 is at 17.5 percent, and future Falcon models not yet revealed will likely be made of more composite materials, according to François Devant, manager of the Biarritz facilities and former head of the composites manufacturing facility.
Like many aircraft manufacturers, Dassault is keen on vertical integration, manufacturing many parts at its own facilities, although some are also subbed to vendors. But when it comes to critical components like the fly-by-wire flight controls, Dassault designs and manufactures these, itself. The company was an early pioneer in fly-by-wire development, having designed what it says are “the first fly-by-wire flight controls…on the Mirage III and Mirage IV at the end of the 1950s.”
The Falcon 6X is progressing toward first flight in early 2021, with certification planned a year later. Most critical design review items are done, with just some systems items remaining, according to Devant.
The first major structural element to be manufactured was the 6X’s T5 component, which is the rear fuselage cone and lower vertical stabilizer.
Construction of the T5 section began in February and was nearly complete in late August when robotic drilling began on the first 6X wing at the Martingas factory. The first major wing part, a 10-meter-long (32.8 feet) lower wing panel, was manufactured in December 2018 on a high-speed milling machine. This enables designers to incorporate stiffeners and other structural elements in the wing panel without having to rivet these on later, cutting down on parts count and improving strength and longevity. While Dassault did use chemical milling in the past, according to Devant, that process is no longer feasible given strict environmental and hazardous waste regulations.
While all this work progresses, subcontractors on the program are working closely with Dassault engineers using a digital mockup of the 6X that lives in a Dassault Systemes computer model. This enables all involved to share any changes as they occur and ensure the changes fit with what everyone else is doing.
“Everything has been proceeding according to plan," said Eric Trappier, chairman and CEO of Dassault Aviation. "The design was frozen earlier this year and the manufacturing process is well underway. Dassault Aviation and our global partners have the collaborative digital tools in place to continue to meet the benchmarks that were established when the program was announced.”
Although the many Dassault facilities in France have developed key skills in manufacturing, they don’t automatically win the work for each program, Devant explained. Labor costs are high in France, “There is not a real advantage on the money side, so the challenge is to be the most productive and efficient. That’s why we’re so obsessed with efficiency when it comes to manufacturing. It’s about quality and efficiency.”
For each new program, each Dassault facility competes with the others to win the work. The facilities also get involved with the request for proposals process with subcontractors, “to make sure we are producing at the best cost internally,” Devant said. “They know they have to be cost-efficient.”
Meanwhile, the company is building two integration test benches. One is in Saint Cloud and houses flight controls and other actual components that can be run by a computer simulating flight. At Dassault’s flight test facility in Istres, France, another test bench is under construction using actual electrical, hydraulics, brakes, pneumatic, and other systems such as the Honeywell EASy III avionics along with computers to simulate flight and test for failures in these critical systems.
As assembly of the first 6X progresses, all the major components will flow to Bordeaux-Mérignac. Early next year the wing and fuselage will be mated.