Airbus is a company built on innovation and throughout its history, it has demonstrated a fierce desire to produce modern aircraft built with the highest quality and efficiency standards. This pioneering spirit has seen Airbus work with companies across the world, establish engineering and manufacturing sites in places such as Bristol, UK, and become a leader in aviation.
Airbus’ involvement in Bristol and the Filton site can be traced back to 1979 when British Aerospace became a formal partner in the Airbus consortium. The Filton site has been owned by different companies over the years but it was the site of Sir George White’s Bristol Aeroplane Company founded in 1910, with Pegasus House—the former headquarters of the Bristol Aeroplane Company—opened in 1936 and still in use today by Airbus. Over the years, Filton and the respective companies operating on the site have produced many aerospace marvels such as the Bristol Bulldog, Blenheim Bomber, and the unmissable Concorde that made its final flight back to its birthplace in 2003 and is now displayed permanently at Aerospace Bristol.
The Airbus site in Bristol employs around 3,000 people and the majority of employees work on the design, engineering, testing, and support of wings for Airbus’ commercial fleet; the wing-assembly and equipping of the A400M military airlifter; and the fuel systems and landing gear integration. Experts in support functions such as Customer Services, Finance, and Procurement can also be found in Filton along with highly skilled teams working in cutting-edge technologies from Artificial Intelligence to Advanced Layer Manufacturing.
Filton-designed wings for commercial aircraft are assembled in Broughton in North Wales and then transported, mainly by Airbus Beluga planes, to final assembly lines in Toulouse, France, and Hamburg, Germany. The wings are a ferociously complicated part of an aircraft and they help define its overall performance, especially when it comes to efficiency. Bristol engineers are crucial in unlocking innovations of the future in the aerospace sector.
The pan-European company celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2019 and heralded world firsts—such as the twin-engined, twin-aisle A300 that was crafted through a culture of pioneering progress—as well as looking forward to the next chapter of the company that will see Airbus grow in a competitive but sustainable way.
Airbus is proud of its working partnerships across the South West and works closely with Rolls-Royce, GKN, and the National Composites Centre among others as well as the Welsh and UK governments. A 2017 Oxford Economics report on Airbus’ economic impact on the South West supply chain estimated that the company supports 9,200 jobs in the region.
Airbus engineers in Bristol design the wings for exciting planes such as the A350 XWB (Extra Wide Body), featuring a novel adaptive wing design that morphs while airborne to help reduce fuel burn, and the single-aisle A321XLR that features an extended range for long-haul flights. The A380 is the largest civil aircraft with 853 seats at max capacity and its 79.8m wings are so large that they must be transported by sea to France. Airbus wings incorporate aerodynamic-enhancing sharklets—a special sweeping wingtip design that helps reduce fuel burn and improve take-off performance.
The company also has its eye on the future and it is Filton engineers who are leading global initiatives such as Wing of Tomorrow which is dedicated to designing and manufacturing the wings for the next generation of aircraft. Airbus is working to ensure full life cycle capabilities in Filton for today’s technology, and developments of the future, through embracing digital and disruptive solutions while retaining a multiskilled, competitive workforce.
Attracting new blood to join the Airbus family is a full-time activity in itself and Airbus’ pioneering progress mindset is reflected in the initiatives used to inspire the next generation of aerospace experts. This was emblematic in their Bristol-led conceptual airliner which was unveiled at the Royal International Air Tattoo 2019. Named Bird of Prey, it shows what could be possible when young engineers channel their imagination.
Bristol engineers are currently researching changes to wingtips through a project called AlbatrossONE that allows the wingtip to freely flap during gusts or hard manoeuvres.
Flight Physics engineer for AlbatrossONE, Tom Wilson, said, “While hinged wingtips are not new—military jets employ them to allow greater storage capacity on aircraft carriers—the Airbus demonstrator is the first aircraft to trial inflight, freely flapping wingtips to relieve the effects of wind gusts and turbulence. We drew inspiration from nature—the albatross marine bird locks its wings at the shoulder for long-distance soaring but unlocks them when wind gusts occur or maneuvering is required”.
Airbus’ Filton site features a ProtoSpace dedicated to fostering innovation through collaboration and rapid prototyping. This is one of a number of ProtoSpaces across Airbus’ sites and it allows employees to use 3D scanners and virtual reality tools, including augmented reality and 3D printers. They also make use of 100-day ‘Sprints’ where teams work on a project and make use of agile work principles by operating with maximum flexibility and minimum constraints.
Airbus in Filton is working towards becoming a truly eco-efficient enterprise and this means delivering economic value to customers and suppliers while minimising its environmental impact. Airbus is working on the frontiers of sustainability with Rolls-Royce through the hybrid-electric aircraft demonstrator project, E-Fan X. Onboard E-Fan X, one of the four jet engines is replaced by a 2MW electric motor in a bid to increase fuel savings through the implementation of hybrid-electric technology. This piece of work represents a goal of achieving a zero-emissions flight over the next 20 years. The first flight on this journey is expected to be in 2021.
Bristol’s aviation heritage and its contemporary excellence through Airbus’ operations is clear for all to see and this passion, this unrelenting quest for improvement and advancement of human knowledge in every aspect of the aerospace sector, is something that will continue to drive the women, men, and Bristol engineers are currently researching changes to wingtips through a project called future engineers that set foot on the innovation-laden earth of Airbus facilities in Filton.