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A platform for the future of air travel

18 December 2012

The Airbus A350 XWB twin engine jetliner is one of the most eagerly anticipated new aircraft currently being built. Hailed as the future of air travel, the A350 XWB (XWB = extra wide body) has already taken 548 orders without even leaving the factory, let alone the runway. The wings for the new aircraft are manufactured at Broughton near Chester and Electroimpact, a leading designer of tooling and automation for the aerospace sector, was appointed to design and construct the manufacturing system

Electroimpact has previously been involved in a number of Airbus projects, providing the wing manufacturing systems for the A320, A330, A340 and the A400M military transport aircraft. A more recent high profile project was the Airbus A380, currently the world’s largest commercial passenger aircraft. For the Airbus 350 XWB project, however, it had an unusual brief, as the company’s project support manager Damon Griffiths explains:

“Airbus has had a complete change in philosophy about wing manufacture on the A350 XWB, going from a vertical build, with the leading edge pointing to the roof during assembly, to a horizontal build - the first time this has ever been attempted by Airbus. A key advantage of horizontal wing manufacture is the use of a pulse system during the wing build, which is a first within the aerospace business.”

The 33m long wing is moved around the factory in a horizontal position by automatically guided vehicles (as opposed to traditional overhead cranes) and its orientation is maintained during the entire build process. Each wing assembly is held in a jig as the top and lower covers are placed around its skeleton and secured via a series of drilling, bolting and tacking operations.

Modern wing manufacture is highly automated in order to speed up the manufacturing process, with many of the rib to spar assembly operations being performed by machines which are integrated with manual operations where necessary. But the decision to manufacture horizontally was not without its issues, and Electroimpact realised a new design of access platform would be required. Damon Griffiths again:

“Horizontal manufacture involves having the wings high enough off the ground for the machines to pass under - in particular the lower drilling, bolting and lower tacking machine. Secondly, it creates means of access issues for the operators who require under-cover [under the wing skin] and under-structure access.

“We had certain key criteria for the new access platforms to help us overcome the issues with horizontal manufacture. Firstly, the access platform heights would be driven by the build network throughout the length of the wing; secondly, ergonomics were a key design aspect of the platforms which meant we needed to take into account the curvature of the wing to ensure access at the correct height position to minimise any physical strain on the assembly staff.

“Thirdly, we needed to integrate the point-of-use principles for manufacture as it was essential we had as many facilities as possible, such as pneumatics, air and electric power points, close to the operation. And finally, we wanted maximum flexibility, in terms of movement of the lower access platforms, and a system that was versatile enough to be deployed by two men in the required tack times and robust enough to withstand some harsh treatment.”

The solution was to create a total of four bespoke inboard platforms and 36 bespoke lower access platforms, all made from aluminium profiles and accessories provided by Bosch Rexroth. The platforms would be utilised within the manufacturing cells during production to form a complete platform throughout the length and width of the wing. 

The inboard platforms, measuring approximately 14m long and 6m wide are manoeuvred into place at the widest part of the wing using a large automatically guided vehicle beneath the platform chassis. The 36 lower access platforms feature hinged flip flooring and, when deployed in production, can be linked together like a jigsaw puzzle to create one single platform. 

Among their many additional features, both the inboard and lower access platforms have drop-down guarding, point-of-use services and floor lighting. Bosch Rexroth also provided access steps, handrails for fencing between production cells and flag carts for the storage of components. Damon Griffiths summarises:

“The Rexroth platforms, which came in at around £0.75 million, offered both cost and operational advantages over an alternative heavy, fixed, welded structure, their modular design and construction providing more flexibility in the wing assembly operations. Moreover, any modifications to the platforms can be undertaken onsite rather than having to take them away from the customer’s facilities for such work.

“The system we have delivered provides access all areas of the new wing with minimal additional equipment and has enabled Airbus to construct it in a safe manner.”

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