Seeing carbon composite material in its raw form makes it very hard to imagine airplanes built from the stuff. In a brand-new Alenia Aeronautica plant in southern Italy, just outside a town of artisans and olive groves called Grottaglie, hundreds of foot-long spools of paper-thin, half-inch-wide strands wait to be transformed. The material looks like dull-black electrical tape and feels like brittle typewriter ribbon. Wrap those strands around a mold and bake them under pressure in an autoclave, however, and they will meld into a single, super-strong piece of carbon-fiber-reinforced polymer resin, the material that promises to revolutionize the way people make airplanes.
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In Grottaglie, the carbon fiber will be used to create two center sections of the fuselage of Boeing’s newest commercial airplane, the 787 Dreamliner. With Japanese and U.S. suppliers building the forward and aft sections from the same material, the airliner’s entire pressurized hull will be made of composites, an industry first.
Alenia’s supply of spools occupies a small fraction of the floor space in a massive clean room, the largest in Europe (at 6.2 million cubic feet, the equivalent, Alenia calculates, of a 3,000-room hotel). The room is protected from dust by reverse-pressure doors. The temperature and humidity are vigorously controlled at 66 degrees Fahrenheit and 60 percent, respectively. If the air were more humid, the moisture could infiltrate the raw polymer, then, as it cooks away during the curing process, leave destabilizing air pockets. If the air were warmer, the resin embedded in the material could start to soften, causing the strands to stick together. In protecting against these hazards, plant managers have made the clean room the most consistently cool place in the entire air-conditioning-averse nation of Italy.
Everyone in the room—supervising executives, engineers testing materials, construction workers assembling manufacturing equipment, gawking visitors—is wearing a white paper lab coat, preparing for the first tests of the composite fuselage sections, just ahead of initial production. Towering pieces of machinery, designed to craft the 28- and 33-foot-long parts of the Dreamliner, stand like set dressing for the 1927 futurist film Metropolis. In fact, everything here is shockingly large, including the stakes. Alenia Aeronautica has invested more than $600 million in the Dreamliner program, most of it spent on this facility and fuselage barrel development. Company executives are betting the investment will net much more than the $1.1 billion contract the company has with Boeing for Dreamliner sections.
The immense responsibility for getting operations here off to a smooth start rests on the slight shoulders of Maurizio Rosini, the chief operating officer of Alenia Composite, a subsidiary formed to spearhead the manufacture of major aircraft structural components from carbon fiber. Rosini has pale skin and white-gray hair. He also has a quick mind, an unflappable demeanor, and an office in each of the three Alenia airplane plants building carbon fiber components. These days, he says, most of his time is spent in this new, gigantic facility in Italy’s boot heel, which employs about 500 and is remaking Grottaglie into a center of the global aeronautics industry.
“This is a new plant, using new machines and new technology,” he says, peering at visitors intently from behind the thick lenses of his glasses. Rosini has the Italian tendency to grip the crook of a listener’s arm to emphasize his points, and does so now, his other hand gesturing at a machine that is bigger than some apartment buildings, rising 118 feet above him. “Look there: Something is happening,” he says.
Behind a clear panel, 32 spools of the carbon fiber begin spinning within the machine. When the factory is ready the following week, the spools will layer the material on a 30-foot mold, or mandrel. The mandrel gives the raw material its final shape.
The composite ribbons unwind in a dizzying mix of computer-controlled patterns to fully coat the mandrel, ply after ply. Exactly how many layers, their total weight, and their pattern neither Boeing nor Alenia will disclose. The first to use composites for as much as 50 percent of an airliner, the 787 builders are very careful not to give away secrets.
“This is a tremendous change,” says 787 program director Guglielmo Caruso, based in Alenia’s headquarters in Rome. “These new aircraft will have the same dramatic impact as the passing from wooden airplanes to metal, or propellers to jets.”
If Caruso is right and the future is in composites, then Alenia Aeronautica’s fortunes rest on the company’s performance during the Dreamliner contract. Alenia must get a factory up and running in time to meet the relentlessly demanding schedule of the 787 program, which requires the coordination of major partners in three nations. Boeing and its partners have committed to delivering 112 Dreamliners by the end of 2009. The first deliveries, to All Nippon Airways, will begin next May, about a year and a half away from Alenia’s pre-production tests. For the aeronautics executives in charge of the daily grind, this is a career maker or breaker.
During a tour of the plant last October, Rosini was bearing the balance of risk and excitement comfortably. Only with considerable prodding did he admit that at night, during his frequent overnight stays near the plant, about 200 miles away from his family in Naples, he could not stop thinking of the long list of tasks that needed to be done at Alenia’s giant facility.