Some assembly required

Composites and electronic twins are transforming construction

THE A350 is a twin-engined airliner that is the top of the range of Airbus’s offerings, rolling out of the company’s factory in Toulouse, France, at the rate of ten a month. Each of the finished planes sits at the apex of a system of supply chains which fans out across the world, bringing 3.5m components together into a single product. An A350’s airframe is composed of seven sections. Three are assembled into the fuselage, two being made at another site in France and the third in Germany. The two wings are made in Britain, then transferred to Germany to be finished. The tail fin and the horizontal-stabiliser assembly are made in Spain.

All of these pieces are flown to Toulouse in special transport aircraft called Belugas—after the whale, which they resemble, rather than the sturgeon, which they do not. They are made, mostly, of carbon-fibre-reinforced plastics (CFRPs). These are composite materials that cannot be riveted in the way metal is because of the damage this causes to the fibres. They are therefore held together by lock-bolts inserted through 10,000 specially drilled holes in the flanges where the sections overlap.

Connecting the sections involves fitting them together, drilling the holes (a process less damaging than riveting), unfitting them, cleaning the holes and surrounding areas of…