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Carbon Fibre Wings: I have a go at making one by hand

Dave Harvey | 09:10 UK time, Tuesday, 8 March 2011

The automatic Carbon Fibre Placement machine at GKN's factory near Bristol


You go to a lot of factories in this job.

Pie making plants, pump engineers, and, in this part of the world, a lot of plane factories.

The people that work there are always very courteous, and usually quite proud.

But they very rarely let you have a go yourself.

So imagine my surprise when the team who make carbon fibre wings for the brand new state-of-the-art Airbus lightweight passenger jet said yes.

A carbon fibre wing spar, and the tape it is made from


This is one of the spars of the wing, essentially the backbone that keeps the wing, the plane and several hundred people in the air. That flimsy looking tape tumbling onto it is the raw material it is made from.

To make A out of B, you just lay the tape on a mould on the diagonal, then lay some more the other way, about 45 degrees to the first lot. Make sure there are no gaps or wrinkles, and then once you have about 100,000 metres of tape laid down, cook it at 180C.

It is, of course, harder than it sounds. In fact, having tried it, I think I would say it is impossible by hand. Especially since they want you to lay some parts of the spar thicker than others, to carry the load of the wings ribs. And other parts are a funny shape, to allow for the flexing designed by Filton's aerodynamics wizards.

If you fancy a laugh at my expense, watch me try and make one here.

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Fortunately for the team at GKN, they have a machine. A very clever machine, worth £2.5m, which lays up the tape with perfect precision and astonishing speed.

This is the oven they cook the spars in. It gobbles up the 13 metre length like a snack, and then heats it to 180 degrees at ten times atmospheric pressure. Throughout, the spar is monitored and measured for every conceivable variable.

GKN's giant Autoclave cooks the wing spars at 180 degrees


So, lots of fancy kit then. In fact the whole complex cost GKN Aerospace £170m. Two factories and 300 people, who by June will be turning out 13 finished wing sets a month, that's 78 of those spars with all the clever aileron technology that makes the plane fly already assembled.

For plane-heads in the Bristol area - and there are plenty of them of course - this is all heart-swelling stuff. But there's a bit more to it than pure pride.

This factory embodies two of the big lessons for British manufacturing.

First, the world can't get enough lightweight planes. With oil soaring, the new generation of carbon fibre wings, which cut fuel bills dramatically, are flying off the shelves before they're even made. Airbus has sold 538 of the new A350 aircraft already, and we're at least a year from seing one in the sky. Cost cutting, and Green, this is the perfect low carbon manufacturing, which is the hot ticket in manufacturing.

Second, this place would cost the same in China, India or Brazil. There are no discount merchants for that carbon fibre tape laying machine, or the giant autoclave.
Manufacturing that uses expensive equipment and highly skilled labour is much more resilient to global competition. This is what ministers mean by "the knowledge economy".

And you can't get round the machines with cheap labour. As I discovered, you just can't do this by hand. But I must thank Tony Wilson and his team for letting me try.

GKN Team leader Tony Wilson inspects my handiwork.




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