Here is a brief summary of our visit to GKN Filton and GKN Western Approach. Filton is located not far from Bristol, and is also David’s nest during his current rotation abroad.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, GKN Filton’s main focus is on the moounting of wing structures for a number of customers such as Airbus, Dassault and Lockheed Martin. There is also a center for additive manufacturing with a focus on powder-bed technology, an emerging technology in which fine metal powder is sprinkled over a surface, layer upon layer, and melted using a laser or electron beam energy source. GKN Filton employs around 2000 of GKN Aerospace’s 17,000 employees. There, the mounting of the leading edge of the wing near the fuselage for aircrafts such as the Airbus A350 XWB is performed, as well as for the trailing edge near the tip of the wings for the Airbus A320. Worth noting is that the Airbus A350 is the first Airbus aircraft with both the fuselage and wing structures made of composite materials.
Something that I found really hard to believe until I saw it is that the airplane wing closest to the fuselage is so thick that one could almost stand upright and still be able to fit inside the wing. This is at least true for the bigger aircrafts such as the Airbus A350 XWB.
The wing spar of modern aircrafts is made of composite materials, and for those of you who are not quite familiar with what composite material actually is, I will briefly update you. Composite materials are basically materials formed by combining different materials with different properties, such as thermoplastics and carbon fiber. This combination leads to very high strength to weight ratio, and is today done by automated processes such as Automated Fiber Placement (AFP) and the Automated Tape Laying (ATL).
To close the productions cycle, we went from Filton to Western Approach in the afternoon the same day. There the spar of the two wing parts is manufactured in several advanced manufacturing stages. The filament winding machines in Western Approach weaved together, like a giant spider, the different parts of the wing structure from small skeins of threads, which certainly was an impressive sight. The manufacturing environment in Western Approach is extremely clean, and air filters is used to filter out particles in order not to jeopardize the quality. We almost looked like a bunch of medical students when we walked around in our white coats and hairnets. The site also hosted some gigantic vacuum ovens and washing machines, large enough to fit one or more student apartments.
In short, a very interesting visit both to the GKN site in Filton, and to Western Approach. It feels good knowing that GKN is in the process of develop and manufacture future products made of high-performance lightweight materials for more efficient, more reliable and more environmentally friendly aircrafts.