Inside a building located within a maze of structures at Spirit AeroSystems’ plant on South Oliver is a team of people whose jobs are to experiment with aircraft materials and processes to figure out ways to help build airplanes better, faster and cheaper.
It’s one way that Spirit, the biggest supplier to commercial airplane maker Boeing and the city’s largest employer, ensures it will remain a key supplier to the world’s biggest makers of passenger planes — including Airbus — while aiming to carve out a larger stake in the manufacture of military and other civilian aircraft.
Spirit is one of the companies that make up the area’s aviation cluster, which accounted for 27,500 jobs as of December 2016, or about 9 percent of the area’s workforce, according to the Kansas Department of Labor. It’s an important industry to the area today and likely will remain a significant economic force in the coming decades.
Spirit and Bombardier Business Aircraft are some of the key aviation companies that continuously keep an eye to the future.
John Pilla, Spirit senior vice president and chief technology officer, said in any given year the company that employs 10,700 locally has about 64 ongoing research and development projects that it spends roughly $30 million on.
The projects generally fall under one of three categories the company calls Horizon One, Horizon Two and Horizon Three, he said, and are numbered based on the immediacy of the need.
For example, a Horizon One project could be something that needs to be completed within six months, while a Horizon Three project is longer term, five to 10 years out and “some of the gee-whiz stuff,” Pilla said.
R&D staff aren’t generally working on radical new airplane designs, but parts of airplanes and the materials Spirit uses to manufacture them. Materials such as alloys and composite are some of what Spirit’s scientists look at, Pilla said.
For composites, Spirit employs one of its early automated fiber placement machines for experimentation. The massive machine stands nearly two stories high and costs millions of dollars.
“We’re always looking at new, better resins and fibers … cutting edge materials,” Pilla said. “The easier it is to lay it (composite fibers) down and cook it makes it cheaper.”
Ideally, Spirit would like to find a way to cure composite parts not using an autoclave, which uses heat and pressure to strengthen and harden composites.
“Those autoclaves are just crazy expensive,” Pilla said.
“The ability to do this stuff out-of-autoclave is a big push by the defense guys and the commercial guys. Anything that can drag down the cost of composite parts.”
Pilla said on new airplane programs, Spirit generally comes in after a manufacturer has a concept of the airplane. Spirit’s job is to “always circle back to what technology will they need” for that concept aircraft. Spirit also tries to have its engineers involved in proving that the concept aircraft or part can be built.
At Bombardier Business Aircraft, the parent company of Wichita’s Learjet, the task of thinking about the future of aviation involves staff from its technology office – which is shared with Bombardier Commercial Aircraft – as well as people making up its design and product teams.
The latter two teams “spend all their time thinking about what’s next,” said Brad Nolen, Bombardier Business Aircraft director of product strategy and market development.
The technology office, meanwhile, is “mandated to mature new technically advanced aerodynamic configurations and materials … up to the point we’d be comfortable using them in an aircraft.”
Their work involves more than just coming up with radically different looking airplanes. What they are considering in the business jet of the future has a lot more to do with the inside of the airplane and passenger comfort.
“I think in general what customers are looking for is a seamless transition from their home to their car to their business jet,” Nolen said.
He points to the company’s new Global 7000, which is undergoing flight testing in Wichita. He compares the inside of Bombardier’s biggest and longest-range business jet to that of a “high-end New York City apartment.”
For instance, instead of carpet throughout the interior of the airplane, the flooring is broken up between carpet and hardwood or stone flooring in the airplane’s lavatory and entryway. Customers also expect to have seating that functions just like at home, such as the ability to recline.
“We see evolving customer needs and tastes,” Nolen said.
Business jet customers have moved past simply getting from point A to point B quickly and with minimal hassle.
“Now, their expectations are fine-tuned, there’s a lot more attention to fit and finish of the aircraft,” Nolen said.
Stand-up showers in large business aircraft like the 7000 are also an expectation, as are aircraft designs that dampen the bumps a business jet passenger would feel when the aircraft encounters turbulence, he said, “the smoothest flight possible so you really feel like you’re at home.”
Nolen said it’s likely that people will see some “novel” business jet designs in the future, bearing in mind “it’s always a question of balancing risk with reward.”
“There’s more that can be eked out” of traditional business jet design, he added.
“Who knows where the future is going?” Nolen said. “Is it possible to have a Siri or Alexa … on your airplane that answers your beck and call?”