Airbus closes in on A350 final assembly
While Airbus has given itself additional time to develop subsequent variants, manufacture of the initial A350-900 is underway and the manufacturer has begun testing the new twinjet\'s systems and structures. Ian Goold reports.
Progress reports on the production of the first Airbus A350-900 were overshadowed at June\'s Paris air show by the confirmation of a two-year delay in the A350-800 and -1000 models scheduled to follow it.
As the European manufacturer prepares to assemble the first of its A350 XWB widebody twinjets, it has admitted the difficulties it faces in establishing a final-assembly line (FAL) by year\'s end and flying the first machine by late 2012. First delivery of the new aircraft is planned for the end of 2013, a schedule now acknowledged by Airbus as "challenging".
The next moves in the programme include setting up so-called "pre-FALs" at the Airbus factories at Broughton (UK), St Nazaire (France), and Hamburg (Germany), for the completion of major components for shipping to the main FAL. The pre-FALs should begin assembly work on the first aircraft (MSN 001) before the end of September, ahead of the installation of systems and equipment, including ducts, electrical harnesses, pipes, and tubes, from October.
As of June, Airbus’s major-component assembly plans remained geared for the delivery of the first units to the FAL by the end of this year. Structural assemblies handled by the pre-FALs include: the tailplane and tailfin; the wing; and fuselage Sections 11/14, 16/19, and 15/21.
Ahead of the Paris show, Airbus said that large parts of the first A350 had already been made, and that new carbon-fibre reinforced plastic (CFRP) technology was ready for manufacturing to begin. According to the company, production of large CFRP components was underway at all Airbus factories.
"Only [the] very last few open tasks will have to be completed in the [coming] weeks," Airbus said.
The A350 does not have a carbon-fibre composite fuselage like the Boeing 787, but uses large CFRP skin panels fastened to a more-conventional metal structure. Related technical challenges in the programme have involved the commissioning of very large tooling, the optimisation of lay-up and curing processes for the composites materials, as well as the non-destructive testing of CFRP parts.
In March, programme partners Premium Aerotec and Spirit AeroSystems completed curing of the A350\'s largest fuselage skin panel at their respective plants in Nordenham, Germany, and Kinston, North Carolina. The 93m² (1,000ft²) item, an element in the starboard forward-fuselage at Section 13-14, includes apertures for the lower-deck cargo door and second right-hand passenger door.
Such large skin sections were adopted because panel thickness could be "tailored" locally to accommodate different structural loads, Premium said. Following ultrasonic inspection, drilling and trimming, the panel was fastened to other forward-fuselage components.
Spirit AeroSystems manufactures the centre-fuselage crown, while Premium also makes forward-crown panels. Production of lower-wing covers and rear-fuselage barrels is under way at Illescas (Spain), with upper wing covers manufactured in Stade, Germany. Centre-wing box and keel beam assemblies are constructed at Nantes, France.
From the start of the A350 programme, a major consideration for Airbus has been the need to ensure early design maturity, which the manufacturer reported is "developing well" through various major bench tests. "Large systems integration benches, such as \'Iron Bird ’ and ‘High Lift 0\' [are] already in place 18 months before first flight. Commissioning of other benches – \'Landing Gear 0\' and \'Cabin 0\' – will follow this year," Airbus said.
The cabin-systems test platform in Hamburg was powered up for component verification and validation of components in May. At the same time, Airbus began to prepare one of its A380 test aircraft – designated MSN 001 – for work as a flying test bed for the A350\'s Rolls-Royce Trent XWB engine, starting later this year.
The early-maturity programme also includes initial "virtual" flights, planned to start later in 2011, on the Toulouse-based ‘Iron Bird’ test rig, which will be used next year to test electric, hydraulic, and flight-control systems integration. Underway in Bremen, Germany, are high-lift system tests, using a full-scale, 34m by 7m (111.5 ft by 23 ft) mock-up of the A350-900 flap assembly, according to Airbus.
In early 2011, Airbus and Chinese partner Harbin Hafei opened their joint-venture composites manufacturing centre in Harbin, where A350 rudders and elevators, fuselage fairings and rear-fuselage maintenance-access doors are manufactured. Production of the Section 11-12 airframe structure around the A350 flight deck windscreen has begun at EADS\'s aerostructures subsidiary Aerolia in Méaulte, France.
Other progress includes delivery of Messier-Dowty-built main and Liebherr Aerospace-made nose-wheel landing-gear units for installation and systems-integration testing on the Landing Gear 0 rig at Filton. Further tests with all three landing-gear units are planned to begin at the end of this year.
Earlier in 2011, Airbus confirmed its readiness to consider installing Pratt & Whitney geared turbofans as an alternative to the Trent XWB.
"If [P&W] wants to propose an engine, we\'d certainly look at it. If [Rolls-Royce] wants to give us reasons to go exclusively with them, we\'d certainly take a look at that, too," Airbus said.