Setting Up to Innovate

Airbus is set to open a Wing of the Future program in Filton, U.K., in 2018 that has been tasked with the tall order of looking at this critical component completely anew. As Hills puts it, the program is about recognizing that composite components offer completely fresh possibilities – and challenges – that need to be addressed in processes that don’t simply mimic metallic wing design and manufacturing.

“A lot of the basic principles [we use] are from the 1950s onward, so Wing of the Future is trying to take all of the learning we’ve gathered so far around this material and to understand, if you put all that on the table on a clean sheet of paper, what does this wing look like?” Hills says.

New designs will be geared toward further improving fuel efficiency, an area where lightweight composite materials naturally excel, while addressing high material costs and comparatively slower production times.

Not to be outdone, Boeing opened its Composite Wing Center in Everett, Wash., at the end of 2016. The facility now houses construction of the 777X wing, set to be the longest wing Boeing has ever built, as well as research for advancements in carbon fiber technology. The innovative new carbon fiber-based wings will feature a folding wing-tip that will increase the wingspan by 23 feet while in flight. This increase provides a higher lift-to-drag ratio that could improve fuel efficiency while, when folded away, still meets airport regulations for maximum wing length. Flight testing and certification programs for the 777X are set to be complete by 2020. The three-year turnaround may be an ambitious goal.

Airbus began producing its XWB wings for the A350-1000 in 2015, but it’s been less than a year since the unique design took to the skies in tests. The nearly 105-foot-long wing for the latest aircraft in the A350 XWB family is the largest carbon fiber composite material-based component in civil aviation today. Approximately 70 percent of the frame is made from a combination of carbon composites (53 percent), titanium and aluminum alloys. The company is hoping to deliver its groundbreaking wide-body plane by the end of the year, but as of June 2017, the company listed a complete backlog of the 211 total orders received for the A350-1000.

There are a number of reasons for delays, and many lessons have been learned during this process, Hills notes. But certainly improvements within the composite supply chain on manufacturing technology will be needed to achieve the low costs and rapid production that will be in demand on any future iteration of a largely composite plane.