Engineering firm MTorres, a maker of sophisticated aerospace manufacturing equipment, opened a new innovation and manufacturing center near Boeing’s jet plant in Everett. It’s developing a novel manufacturing method to produce one-piece carbon-fiber fuselages without fasteners.
Spanish engineering company MTorres arrived in the Pacific Northwest two years ago to compete for a bigger share of the vast American aerospace market for advanced, automated manufacturing equipment.
It’ll have a grand opening next week of a big new facility in Everett where it develops innovative technology for nearby Boeing and other customers.
For example, it produced the robotic manufacturing cells inside Boeing’s newest “spar shop” in Everett that drill and fasten stiffeners and rib posts to the long spars for the 777X wings, the largest ever on a commercial jet.
But MTorres is looking much further down the runway with its ideas.
Even as it builds additional equipment to produce those 777X spars, it has also come up with a bold plan to build one-piece carbon-fiber fuselages without the metal joinery and support used on current planes like the mostly composite 787 Dreamliner.
It’s a technology that could transform airplane making.
The first demo piece, a large, complexly curved one-piece composite airplane fuselage that contained not a single fastener, was unveiled at the Paris Air Show in June.
The technique could likewise be used to produce other large composite airplane structures such as wings, or vehicles in the defense or space-launch sectors.
In fact, the original idea was to start with making an airplane wing, and so the technology is dubbed TorresWing.
It’s not a near-term project. MTorres executives freely admit it’s a proof-of-concept endeavor, a technology proving ground that may take years to become an industrialized reality.
Still, TorresWing presents a startling vision of the future.
An animated video shows how a complete factory could be designed to mass-produce such fuselages. It shows cells of fully automated equipment fabricating complete one-piece fuselages — all done by robots moving in a tight ballet and producing a finished carbon-fiber structure without a single rivet or fastener or any metal.
The fuselages include stiffening stringers, structural frames and floors, all integral to the structure.
The project brings together MTorres’ expertise in designing robotic equipment for laying down carbon fiber, its experience in creating highly automated assembly cells for putting a structure together, and innovation it has developed in the carbon-fiber material used.
Eduardo Torres, chairman of MTorres America, said the aim is “to show what MTorres is capable of.”
“We are a unique company,” he said. “Nobody has this combination of expertise in materials and automation.”
New facility in Everett
MTorres already is a world leader in equipment used to make carbon-fiber composite structures.
Its automated machines fabricate the wings of the all-composite Airbus A350 twin-aisle jet, the fuselage section of Boeing’s all-composite 787 Dreamliner built by Kawasaki in Japan, the tail of the 787 built in Salt Lake City, and the wings of the forthcoming MS-21 jet built by Irkut of Russia.
Its newly built innovation and advanced manufacturing center close to Boeing’s Everett jet plant is a 70,000-square-foot facility with room to expand, representing an investment of about $17 million.
The “grand opening” will be attended by local government officials and current and potential customers — including Boeing but also Northrop Grumman, with whom MTorres is discussing possible contracts on the new B-21 Long Range Strike Bomber, and Blue Origin, a possible candidate for equipment to build space rockets.
Not far away from its new location, on the west side of Paine Field, is the local engineering champion of automated aerospace equipment and MTorres’ rival, Electroimpact of Mukilteo.
So far, Electroimpact is more than holding its own. On Boeing’s new 777X, Electroimpact won the biggest contracts.
MTorres won three big secondary 777X contracts.
Boeing showcased one of those in October when it began production of the first 777X inside its new “spar shop.”
On Tuesday, inside the new MTorres manufacturing facility, mechanics were putting together another spar assembly line in preparation for the 777X production ramp-up.
Still, MTorres’s growth here has been slower than hoped. It now has 120 employees, only a handful more than two years ago.
Joseba Perez, managing director of the new facility, said MTorres America still aims to increase employment to about 175.
He said the company has won new projects worth $30 million this year and expects to close an additional $10 million soon.
Beyond that, MTorres of course has its eye on Boeing’s potential launch of an all-new 797 that promises to be a gold mine of new automated manufacturing equipment.
Mark Cumm, MTorres vice president of sales and marketing, conceded that the futuristic TorresWing project is probably further out than even the 797.
He said the company has pitched the technology concept to both Airbus and Boeing, as well as to manufacturers of smaller planes.
Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner was a huge innovation in airplane manufacturing, with a radically new fuselage made from carbon-fiber composites in large single-piece, barrel-shaped sections.
However, these sections are essentially only the airplane’s skin, which must be structurally reinforced internally by circular frames and longtitudinal stringers at intervals. Each of these separate sections are then joined into complete 787 fuselages with more fasteners and carbon fiber at the joins.
The TorresWing concept would avoid the need for the internal structural reinforcement of this shell.
While the 787 fuselage barrels are fabricated by laying carbon-fiber tape down onto massive molds that are removed from inside the barrel after it is cured in a high-pressure oven called an autoclave, TorresWing’s innovative technique dispenses with these big molds.
Instead, robotic machines first take a pair of circular composite frames and, using flexible molds, lay fiber between them to produce short fuselage sections that look like broad rings rather than barrels.
These rings are bonded together to create a complete but very thin-skinned fuselage, just five or six plies of carbon fiber — about one twentieth of an inch thick — though with lines of thicker material that will serve as stiffeners.
Once this initial piece is cured to hardness, it’s used as the mold on top of which the exterior skin of the airplane is laid down in many more plies of carbon fiber.
The initial piece is never removed and becomes the internal framework that adds structural strength to the outer skin.
Another innovation is that the curing is done in an unpressurized oven, not in a much more expensive autoclave.
To achieve that, MTorres developed its own proprietary preparation process for the carbon-fiber material, which is laid down dry, like textile.
A thermoplastic powder that’s activated by heat is integrated into the material so that these dry layers of carbon fiber become tacky and hold in place when laid over one another.
Instead of the hardening epoxy resin being infused into the carbon fiber, it’s added at the curing stage.
Javier Raya, MTorres sales-operations manager, said that since carbon fiber was first introduced, it’s often been assembled as if it were “black aluminum,” using the same manufacturing techniques developed to build metal planes: many components drilled and fastened together.
He believes the TorresWing project for the first time moves toward a method truly designed for this material, saving the weight of all those joins.
Chairman Eduardo Torres said it’s possible that whatever emerges from the project to be implemented inside factories may look completely different from the current concept.
But the goal is along the way to develop new, useful automation and materials technologies.
“The plan is to continue to prove out the technology and move toward industrialization,” said Cumm.