Airbus trials new wing designs in technology race with Boeing

London July 4 (BNA): Airbus (AIR.PA) is ramping up testing of radical new wing technology as the aircraft maker lays the groundwork for a future successor to its best-selling A320 series, but it faces a battle to cut costs.

According to Reuters, British Industry Minister Nusrat Ghani inaugurated a wing technology factory in southwest England on Tuesday to help design and build wings that are longer, lighter and more agile and feature foldable wingtips to fly more sustainably.

“It’s our program to prepare the technologies that we’ll need for the next generation of Airbus aircraft, whatever that may be,” Sue Partridge, the company’s head of the Wing of Tomorrow programme, told reporters.

The opening comes as Boeing (BA.N) researches a long, ultra-light concept called Transonic Truss-Braced Wings.

The choice of wing design and production methods by either manufacturer, along with engine development, would shape aircraft competition well into the second half of the century.

Industry sources estimate that Airbus is spending “hundreds of millions of dollars” on the wing of tomorrow.

Officially, the research could benefit any project, but all eyes are on a successor to the single-aisle A320, which Airbus said could be flown between 2035 and 2040.

Currently, the best-selling A320/321 and rival Boeing 737 are made from aluminium, but designers believe the composites will allow future wings to taper in new, efficient ways.

The main hurdle is that it costs more to produce composite parts — a gap that’s harder to fill on the pricier A320 and 737 than on larger aircraft already built from composites.

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Partridge said Airbus is in talks with at least three suppliers to cut costs and weave parts more efficiently.

Folding wings

Introducing carbon wings for single-aisle aircraft would also have required an industrial revolution to keep up with production targets that are currently 10 times higher than for large aircraft.

Currently, spacecraft are processed in pressurized ovens called autoclaves, which devour space and energy.

Partridge confirmed that Airbus is studying whether to manufacture wings without sterilizers.

Analysts say only a new Russian aircraft has used this method fully so far for wings, but adapting it to the sizes of Airbus or Boeing aircraft will require significant investment and cost advances.

With the wings extended in length, the test at historic Filton – where part of the Anglo-French Concorde was developed – includes folding wing tips to fit parking gates, echoing the Boeing 777X.

“Physics tells us that to get a wing that’s more fuel-efficient it needs to be longer and leaner. That means we need to increase the span of the wing,” Partridge said.

Partridge declined to say when Airbus would choose among the dozens of technologies it is testing, but said it would be ready for any commercial decision on a new programme. Analysts say work on Model 2035 should begin by 2027-28.

Asked if the new technology could be used to upgrade existing models such as the A321, Partridge said, “Yes, in theory.”

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Industry sources say Airbus could benefit from part of the research if it goes ahead with a possible extension of the smaller A220.

Airbus has not said what the aircraft, known internally as the “A220 Stretch”, will be involved in, but sources say one scenario would require new wings and engines to enter service before 2030.

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