To help build the Boeing 787's composite fuselage, Italy spends a bundle.
- By Joe Pappalardo
- Air & Space magazine, July 2007
(Page 4 of 5)
Alenia’s partnerships are not permanent alliances, like those in the Airbus consortium; they are based on individual products, what Giorgio Zappa, former company president, called “opportunistic partnerships.” Company officials today credit Zappa, who became chief operating officer of Finmeccanica in late 2004, with resisting a monogamous relationship with Airbus and forging Alenia’s independent direction.
When Alenia was breaking ground for its new aircraft factory in 2005, Grottaglie was best known for olive oil (the dark, unfiltered kind) and ceramics. Grottaglie’s residents have not yet caught up with their town’s transformation into a center of heavy manufacturing wizardry. Their favorite pastimes seem to be peering out of doorways and making plates decorated with saints or roosters. Rows of gnarled, thousand-year-old olive trees separate the town from the three massive factory buildings, all colored Alenia blue. The trim of the door and windows, the outside stairs, and the fences are all the same hue; the company is aware of the power of branding. New grass grows around the entrance.
Inside the main building of the manufacturing center, natural light pours from the ceiling 80 feet above, bathing new industrial machinery. Great empty spaces surrounding the machines will one day be occupied by duplicate pieces of equipment, if the contracts multiply. “Automation is key for one-piece technology,” Rosini says, referring to the innovative method of making whole, circular sections. “We will reach a very high rate of production in a short time. The days of slow starts are over.”
The clean room, where the most delicate work will be done, takes up about a third of the building. “The clean room area is the heart of the building,” Rosini says. “And the heart of the process is the mandrel.”
The mandrel is etched with the precise details of the fuselage, including recessed shapes that later will be cut to form the doors and windows. Unlike the mandrels used by other Boeing partners, Alenia’s has been designed to collapse, freeing the composite form without the need to disassemble the underlying structure. Think of melting a candle over a balloon, and then deflating the balloon to separate the layer of wax in one shaped piece from the template beneath it. The design saves production time and preserves the details of the form.
The composite material, delivered to nearby Brindisi airport in refrigerated cargo airplanes, is loaded into a machine that dispenses the fiber. The machine’s robotic arm, suspended from a gantry, moves along the length of the mandrel, laying the carbon fiber strips with absolute precision. The mandrel rotates to give the robotic arm access to all sides. A scaffold surrounds the mandrel, and stairs allow technicians to monitor the placement machine’s activity.
The head on the robotic arm does not appear to be very dextrous—a clamp, guide wheels, and loops of wire. But the device weaves about 85 feet of fiber per minute, using laser guidance and computer software to cast the composite tape with the speed and spirit of an orb spider spinning a web.
The fibers of a single ply point in one direction, but the fibers of the next layer run in another direction to make the skin resistant to bending forces (just as the layers of wood fibers in plywood are laid in alternating directions). The thickness of the composites throughout the airplane varies from one-quarter inch to more than an inch, depending on the load each area must bear. No matter where on the composite form stress is imposed, there will be a pattern of plies that is especially resistant to it.