Composite breakthrough primes Spirit for new – and maybe more – work

500th Spirit AeroSystems Boeing 787

Watch as Spirit AeroSystems workers assemble the 500th Boeing 787 Dreamliner forward fuselage. (courtesy Spirit AeroSystems)
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Watch as Spirit AeroSystems workers assemble the 500th Boeing 787 Dreamliner forward fuselage. (courtesy Spirit AeroSystems)

Spirit AeroSystems’ effort to find faster and cheaper ways of manufacturing composite parts is beginning to pay off.

On the company’s second-quarter 2017 earnings conference call with analysts two weeks ago, CEO Tom Gentile said in his opening remarks that Wichita’s largest employer had “captured” new work on the next generation spoiler for the Airbus A320 narrowbody jetliner family.

The spoiler work was a direct result of the company’s focus on research and development into advanced composites. It also was aimed at meeting Airbus’ requirements for lower-cost parts, he said.

“We are very pleased with the range of technical interactions we are now having with Airbus, and this win positions us better in the future to win even more Airbus work,” Gentile told analysts on the Aug. 2 call.

That win sets up the company not only for potentially more work with Airbus but also Boeing – Spirit’s largest customer – at a time when those planemakers are focused on acquiring aircraft parts and structures from suppliers at a lower cost.

The end goal, Spirit officials said, is not only to increase the company’s current workload – and maybe add to its local work force of 10,800 employees – but ensure it’s ready to take on future airplane programs that will require new materials and methods to build them.

It’s “setting us up for success on the next commercial airplanes,” said Linda Cadwell-Stancin, Spirit’s director of engineering for research and development.

Over most of its 11-year history, Spirit has developed an expertise in making large, complex composite parts. That includes the forward, or cockpit, section of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, the nacelle of the Boeing 777 and the center fuselage and spar of Airbus’ new A350 widebody airliner.

At the same time, the company has been researching methods to produce composite parts and structures more quickly and cheaply.

Crews move an autoclave, used to harden aircraft parts made of composites, to Boeing's new 424,000-square-foot composite center in St. Louis, where workers will manufacture the 777X's composite wing edge and parts of its tail. (Video courtesy of B

It was through the company’s R&D activities – of which it spends about $30 million annually on 60 or so different research projects – that Spirit has developed new methods and found less-costly materials for manufacturing composite parts and structures that don’t require the use of an autoclave.

An autoclave is akin to a large oven that uses heat and pressure to strengthen and harden composites.

That new methods for making out-of-autoclave thermoset and thermoplastic composites led to Spirit’s development of the next-generation A320 spoiler at its Prestwick, Scotland site. Spirit’s operations in Prestwick, which supports Airbus, and Wichita serve as the hubs of its R&D work.

“The Wichita team and Prestwick work very closely together,” Caldwell-Stancin said. “All of our work is planned to the same technology road map for the next 20 years.”

Successful development of the next-generation spoiler is the springboard for bigger, out-of-autoclave composite parts.

“It’s the tip of the iceberg for us,” she said.

The company right now is producing large, prototype structures in its Wichita engineering laboratory.

“Full wing structures in that laboratory, and large fuselage structure components,” she said.

Bigger push

Spirit’s R&D is going to get bigger.

“It’s a phenomenal workforce about 220 going to 240,” Caldwell-Stancin said of the R&D team of engineers, scientists and technicians she leads company wide. “We’ve been hiring quite a lot of people. I think we’ve hired 59 in these areas since the first of the year and predominately in Wichita.”

Caldwell-Stancin added that her team isn’t focused solely on advanced composites. They also look at faster and cheaper ways to fabricate metal parts and structures through high-speed machining and welding instead of riveting, as well as improving production flow on the plant floor and inspection of parts.

On the call with analysts this month, Gentile said the company was going to spend more of its own money on R&D, as well as money from other sources.

“We just had our strategy review session with our board, and we’re going to triple our investment in R&D over the next few years,” Gentile said. “Not necessarily all (on) our own nickel, but in terms of using other people’s money, in terms of contract research and development, as well as leveraging third-party institutions to get leverage on the investments that we make.”

Gentile said on the call that a heightened emphasis on R&D will help Spirit identify even more ideas for aircraft structures in the coming years and decades.

That “will position us as an indispensable partner for our customers in the future,” he said.

Boeing’s 787-10 Dreamliner took off Friday, March 31, 2017, from North Charleston, S.C., for a five-hour-long test flight. (Courtesy of Boeing)

Jerry Siebenmark: 316-268-6576, @jsiebenmark

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