Three of Washington state's top aerospace suppliers are providing Bombardier's Belfast factory for the new CSeries jet with sophisticated fabrication and assembly equipment, underscoring the globalization of the airplane industry.
In an advanced plant rapidly taking shape in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Bombardier will build the carbon-fiber composite wings of its new CSeries jet, a single-aisle plane that will compete against Boeing’s Renton-built 737.
Three of Washington state’s top aerospace suppliers are delivering sophisticated fabrication and assembly equipment worth tens of millions of dollars to the plant, underscoring the globalization of the airplane industry.
Waterjets from Flow International of Kent will precisely cut composite wing skin panels. Tooling from Janicki Industries of Sedro-Woolley will hold thin, T-shaped stiffening rods called stringers tight against the wing skins as they are cured in a giant oven, joining the skin and stringers into a single structural piece.
The biggest local contribution comes from Electroimpact of Mukilteo. The company’s engineers have designed a computer-controlled, automated system of jigs, gantries and massive precision-guided drilling machines to assemble, inspect and fasten the entire wings.
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Bombardier said the Electroimpact contract is worth “in the region of $60 million” over several years.
This is not just hardware. It’s cutting-edge American technological prowess.
“We don’t really sell machines,” said Gary Wilson, the Belfast-born, Mukilteo-based manager for Electroimpact’s CSeries project. “We sell a lot of engineering that ultimately gets wrapped up in a bunch of steel.”
In today’s globally intertwined industry, such suppliers of high-end manufacturing gear sell to all comers.
Electroimpact’s offices are in Mukilteo just across the Paine Field runway from Boeing’s wide-body jet plant in Everett. Yet more than 80 engineers are at work there designing the assembly fixtures that will go into the Airbus A350 wing plant in Broughton, Wales.
One huge wing-assembly machine has already shipped out to the U.K., and five more are under construction in the Mukilteo machine shop.
Another group of engineers is working on the equipment that will be used to make the wings for a new model of the Legacy corporate jet built by Embraer of Brazil.
And on the third floor of its Mukilteo offices, about 30 Electroimpact engineers work on the CSeries project, supplying what Montreal-based Bombardier needs to try to break into Boeing’s big jet market.
Bombardier failed to announce any orders for the CSeries at July’s Farnborough Air Show near London, deflating high expectations for the jet. And talk from Airbus and Boeing at Farnborough of re-engining their established A320 and 737 jets — thereby increasing their fuel efficiency — cast doubt on the prospects for the new competitor.
But recent statements from Boeing executives suggest that they are leaning away from re-engining the 737, and will instead hold out until the end of the decade to produce a replacement. That’s good news for the CSeries and — if confirmed — could help unblock its pipeline of orders.
Meanwhile, executives from both Bombardier and Pratt & Whitney, which provides the CSeries’s next-generation engine, express confidence that orders for the new jet will come. And they have moved ahead rapidly with construction work in Belfast.
Bombardier is investing more than $800 million in its new Northern Ireland facility alone. An additional $240 million is coming from the British government in “repayable launch aid” in return for a promise of 800 CSeries jobs in Belfast.
With 300,000 square feet of new buildings already complete, Bombardier began work in August on a second phase that will double that footprint.
“They’re not hanging back,” said Electroimpact’s Wilson. “They’re going for it, big-time.”
The main jigs Electroimpact designed to hold the wing parts in place during assembly are under construction in the U.K. The machine beds and towers that will hold the jigs are already installed on the factory floor in Belfast.
And in the company’s Mukilteo machine shop, a 22-foot tall, five-axis, automatic drilling machine is being fine-tuned to be ready for installation alongside the assembly fixtures.
With each wing hanging vertically on its edge in the fixture, the automatic driller will move around from the upper side of the wing to its underside, fastening the wing skins, spars and ribs as it goes.
The machine is designed to achieve consistently perfect holes, which is difficult for a mechanic drilling into fibrous materials such as composites, or worse still, a combination of composites and titanium.
“With old-fashioned hand drilling, the quality is abysmal,” Wilson said. “The justification for these big machines is the necessity to drill high quality holes in exotic materials.”
In the first phase, Wilson said, Electroimpact is now installing two assembly cells, each to hold a pair of wings, and one driller. As production ramps up, it will install three more such cells and two more drilling machines within a couple of years.
In keeping with Electroimpact’s approach to engineering, all the people on the CSeries project are hands-on guys who not only design but also build the machinery.
“Everybody here will go to Belfast to install, build and handle the new equipment,” said Wilson.
Bombardier’s Belfast operation, spanning four separate sites, has previously built composite parts for business jets and even for Boeing airliners. Carbon composite flaps for the 757, rudders for the 737, and nose landing gear doors for the 777 were all made in Belfast at one time.
But the 60-foot-long composite wings of the CSeries will be a big step up in capability.
Inside the new buildings now going up beside Belfast’s harbor airport, Bombardier is deploying its own unique twist on the latest carbon-fiber composites technology.
In August, Colin Elliott, Bombardier vice president of engineering in Belfast, elegant in black suit and white shirt, smoked a thin cigar as he drove his Jaguar XJR around the site.
“Scaling the whole thing up, that’s all new to us,” said Elliott, “But we’re totally confident.”
The parts for the wing are fabricated using a process completely different from Boeing’s method of building the skin by laying down resin-infused carbon fiber tape.
To create the long wing skin panels, Bombardier workers inside a giant “clean room” lay down by hand thick, wide sheets of carbon fiber fabric with no resin.
The fabric rests inside hardened steel tooling made by California-based Coast Composites that exactly matches the final outer surface of the wing. On the other side, what will be the inner wing surface, the stringers are held in place by “soft tooling,” made from carbon composites, supplied by Janicki.
Janicki also provides molds from which Bombardier makes the vacuum bags that are pressurized to hold all the material in place until it is hardened inside the 70-foot-long oven, known as an autoclave.
In a proprietary method (whose efficacy is debated within the industry), Bombardier injects the epoxy resin into the fabric while it is curing inside the autoclave.
When the big wing panels come out of the oven, automated vehicles move them to Flow’s waterjet — worth somewhere between $2 million and $6 million. Multiple programmable arms rise up to the underside of the wing skin, locate attachment areas precisely with probes, hold the panel in place with a vacuum, then trim, drill and mill it.
Bombardier has already assembled a demonstrator wing on an Electroimpact assembly fixture. This test wing was bent to “ultimate load” — 150 percent of the maximum load expected in service — and has so far performed as the CSeries engineers predicted.
“We’re confident the airplane will do what it says on the tin,” said Elliott, using a local colloquialism meaning it will perform as advertised.
Impact on Boeing?
How big a threat is the CSeries to Boeing’s 737?
The CSeries comes in two models; the larger, at 149 seats, overlaps only with the smallest 737s, specifically the 737-700.
With five-abreast seating in the CSeries cabin, compared with six-abreast in the 737, to stretch the CSeries as far as the 189-seat 737-800 would mean making it too long and thin, like a pencil.
Joe Sutter, veteran engineer and airplane architect for Boeing, thinks the narrower fuselage limits the growth of the CSeries, making it less of a threat to the broader family of Boeing 737s.
This year, only 13 percent of new 737 orders have been for the -700 model.
But Michael Boyd, president of airline-research firm Boyd Group International of Denver, Colo., said that if the CSeries delivers the promised 15 percent improvement in airline operating costs, then the smaller size won’t matter: Airlines will buy them to replace larger aircraft and get more profit.
“The bottom line is not carrying more people. It’s making more money,” said Boyd. “A 149-seat airplane could replace a whole lot of 737s. It’s a threat to the (737)-800, too.”
In an interview Monday, Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO Jim Albaugh said that part of the reason he’s increasing the 737 production rate in Renton to 38 a month by 2013 is to feed the surging demand for single-aisle jets and leave less of an opening for the CSeries.
The CSeries is scheduled to enter service in 2013. That depends on production flowing by 2012 at the Belfast wing factory and also at the new CSeries fuselage factory in Shenyang, China.
Can Bombardier avoid the glitches Boeing has faced with its global manufacturing plan for the 787?
Elliott insists that the company works well with overseas suppliers.
Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) builds the wings of Bombardier’s Global Express business jet. The Q-400 regional turboprop airliner fuselage was originally made by MHI, then switched to Belfast and Shenyang, China.
“We have experience working with partners,” said Elliott. “It’s new to Boeing. Not to us.”
Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or firstname.lastname@example.org