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Composite fuselage sections for Boeing's 787 are being made in four factories around the world. (Boeingmedia.com)

Alenia's Gamble

To help build the Boeing 787's composite fuselage, Italy spends a bundle.

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(Continued from page 2)

The speed at which the company has moved on the Dreamliner project defies the image of a plodding Italian company, made sluggish by politicians and bureaucrats. A year and a half after its groundbreaking, the Grottaglie manufacturing center, with an area the size of two dozen American football fields and 40 million pounds of structural steel in its bones, produced the first pre-production fuselage sections for the 787. “I think Boeing was surprised by the speed,” says Antonio Perfetti, Alenia Aeronautica’s chief operating officer. “This was not expected from ‘those Italians.’ ”

Nor was this the first time “those Italians” had done something out of the ordinary. Airbus Industrie, a consortium of European-owned aviation companies, has long courted Alenia to become a full partner, but the company has steadfastly (yet politely) refused. Hugel points out that Alenia is sacrificing the security that comes with such a permanent partnership:
“It’s a ‘sure thing’ versus a risk that you’ll get nothing.”

Alenia has developed new manufacturing capabilities and experience to be attractive to both Airbus and Boeing. “The investments for these new technologies are huge,” Hugel says. “Why apply them to only 50 percent of the market when you could get 100 percent?”
Alenia has joined with EADS to produce the ATR regional turboprop and has supplied components to almost every airliner in the Airbus family. It is a partner with U.S. military contractor Lockheed Martin on a medium tactical military transport, the C-27J Spartan. It built the composite wings of EADS’ Eurofighter—experience that helped convince Boeing that the company knew how to work with composites. Most recently, Alenia formed its own joint venture—with Vought Aircraft Industries in South Carolina. The new company, Global Aeronautica, will join the 787 sections being manufactured around the world.
Alenia’s willingness to dance with any partner has earned the scorn of European governments that treat their state-owned industries as tools of diplomacy. That’s where Alenia’s manufacturing capabilities come into play. Because of the company’s factories and its broad experience, European and U.S. companies alike have continued to ask to become partners.

“In the past we were accused of being a two-faced company. I think this is a very stupid criticism,” says Perfetti. “What was once perceived as a negative is now perceived as a point of strength.”

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.

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