Spirit AeroSystems opens Kinston composite aerostructures plant

The 500,000-ft² facility in Kinston, N.C., will use composites to manufacture the 65-ft center fuselage section for the Airbus A350 XWB, as well as the 105-ft front wing spar.

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On July 2, Wichita, Kan.-based Spirit AeroSystems officially opened its 682,000-ft²/63,360m² facility in Kinston, N.C. Initially the plant will be dedicated to the production of center fuselage panels and the front wing spar for the forthcoming Airbus (Toulouse, France) A350 XWB.

Awarded the A350 parts contract in May 2008, Spirit broke ground at the Kinston site in September of that year. Site selection was motivated, in part, by its proximity to the coast and an 11,500-ft/3,505m runway, giving the company air and sea options for transatlantic shipping. Also influential was North Carolina’s $125 million (USD) in incentives, including a $5 million grant and more than $20 million payable over 12 years, tied to job creation.

The Kinston plant will manufacture six composite panels for Section 15, the 65-ft/20m long, 20-ft/6m wide, 9,000-lb/4,082-kg fuselage barrel (see diagram) adjacent to the wing. Four panels have constant-contour surfaces, but two are lateral junction panels, with both convex and concave curvatures that provide an aerodynamic fairing and structural connection to the all-composite wingbox. Each panel’s layup is tailored to meet unique stresses. An Electroimpact (Mukilteo, Wash.) S-15 dual-head automated fiber placement (AFP) machine (photo) will form the panels from Hexcel’s (Stamford, Conn.) Hexply M-21 carbon fiber/toughened epoxy prepreg on a male Invar tool, using machine paths developed with CGTech’s (Irvine, Calif.) VERICUT 3-D simulation software. Feed rates as high as 2,000 inches/min (50.8m/min) — necessary to make the large parts affordable — were achieved by re-engineering its guillotine-type cutter and optimizing the feed-, tow path-, creel- and machine-control systems. The panels’ integrated carbon-composite stringers will be made by a cantilever-type 2-D AFP machine built by MTorres (Torres de Elorz, Spain). Stringer layups will be placed on the panels and cocured in an autoclave at 121°C/250°F.

Completed panels will ship by sea to Spirit’s 60,000-ft² (5,574m²) assembly facility in Saint-Nazaire, France (it opened July 23 and is scheduled for first production by the end of 2010), where they will be joined to form Section 15. From there, the barrel will move next door to the Airbus Saint-Nazaire plant for mating with the A350’s center wingbox, then it will move on to Toulouse for final aircraft assembly.

Spirit’s Kinston plant also will produce the A350’s forward wing spar, a 102-ft/31.2m long structure (Spirit’s largest and first-ever all-composite spar). The structure comprises a 7m/23-ft long inner spar, a 12.7m/42-ft long middle spar and an 11.5m/38-ft long outer spar. The spar parts are made with up to 100 plies of CFRP, tapering from a width of 6 ft/1.8m at the finished spar’s root to roughly 1 ft/3.3m at its tip.

A partner in the spar’s process development, MTorres supplied two TORRESFIBERLAYUP AFP systems, reportedly capable of 60m/min (2,362 inches/min) layup rates, an order of magnitude greater than previously possible, thus making spar production economically viable. The machines manage both the tight U-shaped geometry along the spar component edges — where issues arise as 45° material is applied over 90° corners — and provide the higher temperature and greater compaction required for the lower-viscosity Hexply. Each machine can lay up two spars simultaneously on 15m/49-ft composite mandrels. After autoclave cure, spar sections will be shipped to Spirit’s Prestwick, Scotland, facility for assembly, where they will be mated with the fixed leading edge and other fixtures and then transported to the Airbus U.K. facility in Broughton, Wales, for assembly with the A350 wing.