Alenia Aermacchi M346: made with a Cannon plant!
The recent commissioning of a complex assembly line manufactured by Cannon for Alenia Aermacchi in Italy gives us the opportunity to interview two top-ranking managers of a major aerospace and defence group. We meet Vito Antognazza and Francesco Attucci in the modern Venegono plant, north of Milano. Vito Antognazza is the Manufacturing Director of this large factory, while Francesco Attucci – former director of Industrial Engineering – has been recently given the responsibility of the Cameri plant, near Novara, Italy.
Alenia Aermacchi is the recent fruit of a merger of the businesses, products, sites and traditions of Alenia Aeronautica and Aermacchi. The name traces its lineage to 1913, when the original Nieuport-Macchi was founded. The company leads the Aeronautics business of the state-controlled Finmeccanica, one of the world's top 10 aerospace, defense and security players with a turnover of over 18.5 billion Euros and a global presence securing 75,000 skilled jobs in Europe, the United States and the world. Alenia Aermacchi is a 2.8 billion Euro global group known for its successful products, its balanced portfolio and ability to deliver on leading-edge programs. They manufacture products and systems of superior quality and performance, including proprietary designs like the C-27J airlifter and M-346 advanced trainer, playing key roles in world-class programs like Eurofighter Typhoon, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and the Neuron European UCAV demonstrator. Alenia Aermacchi also has a major role in commercial aircraft, designing and building advanced aerostructures for state of the art airliners, developing the new generation Superjet regionals and building the market-leading ATR turboprops. With its wide network of prestigious subsidiaries and important joint ventures, the Alenia Aermacchi group supplies and supports advanced systems in worldwide use. This also allows them to cover the entire product life cycle from design to in-service support to modification, achieving important synergies among the Finmeccanica aeronautics companies.
Cannon News: Mr Antognazza, Alenia Aermacchi recently signed the acceptance of a mayor assembly line built and assembled by Cannon in your Venegono plant. Can you tell us shortly what this plant is doing?
Vito Antognazza: We produce in Venegono the twin-turbofan M-346 aircraft. This is the most advanced lead-in fighter trainer flying today. With its fully digital flight controls and avionics, which include the latest generation “fly-by-wire” system, together with carefree handling and high angle of attack manoeuvring, the M-346 is fully representative of new generation fighters. It has been ordered, so far, by the Air Forces of Italy and Singapore. Our production schedule was pretty busy for this aircraft, and we needed to speed up its assembly. You can't build these complex machines in a working island, as we do for a prototype!
CN: Can you explain to our readers, which are not experts in aeronautics, the difficulties of this process?
VA: A large number of components must be brought together, with geometric precision in the order of few tenths of a millimetre, in an upscaled version of the well known assembly line commonly used in the automotive industry. In this 100 metre long line we build the three sections of the aircraft – front, central and rear – and then we fit them together in a dedicated area nearby.
The airplane is mostly built with structural parts, made with special Aluminium alloys and Titanium parts, combined with panelling and aerodynamic elements mostly made with Carbon- reinforced composites. Hundreds of machining, drilling, fitting and riveting tasks are performed during this phase. To do this with high efficiency we conceived a line were the three sections – that are held on dedicated tools – travel through dedicated working stations were a specific number of operations are performed by our specialists. The displacement is performed by an AGV (Automatically Guided Vehicle) that, commanded by the central computer, picks on request the tools and brings them to the next station or, at the end of a sequence of operations, to the marry-up area. The main difficulties lie in guaranteeing an absolute positioning precision of the tools along the various working stations, and in the related timing. The logics driving the flow of single components and the use of the AGV must be optimised to avoid any downtime.
all the movements and all the logic controls. The specialists cross- checked the other side's work, agreed modifications when this was the case and then gave green light to manufacture the huge plant's components: columns to lift the tools and their payload; wide centring devices able to hold in place several tons of steel during the most delicate machining tasks, sliding platforms to safely host the operators around specific working areas; the whole platform servicing every corner of the multi-level installation. The erection took several months, mostly spent in ensuring an absolute positioning precision between the various stations. Several things had to be corrected, but we somehow expected this: the project was something new for both the involved parties, all things can't go 100% right at the first time, when you are making a “first of ” complex plant. The atmosphere was cooperative and frank, we re- discussed a few details and the work continued. Another moment of intense co-operation was experienced during the start-up phase. All our ideas had now to be proven, and we required a long time to optimise the interfacing between the airplane's parts, the tools that are holding them, the AGVs and the manipulation system.
CN: How can you rate the final result?
CNews: Mr. Attucci, you conceived this line. Can you tell us how you ended up in assigning its construction to Cannon, and why?
Francesco Attucci: We had very clear ideas about the construction of the main components of our line, and required the intervention of a specialist for the movements and the process control. Examining various potential suppliers – in a field that certainly does not present a wide range of specialised companies – we noticed at Cannon an interesting concept for the handling of wide, heavy parts throughout a large assembly hall, making use of AGV. These parts – wide, curved panels for the thermal insulation of industrial roofs – were submitted to a number of different operations in different working areas. Exactly what we required, although in a much different level of precision. We demanded a repetitivity of positioning of few tenths of millimetre, therefore the machining precision of our plant would have been one order of magnitude more sophisticated than that of that panel plant. The technical discussion took some months, but we eventually found a satisfactory response from Cannon and we signed the supply contract.
CN: The proprietary design of this plant demanded a certain degree of co-development during engineering and designing. How did you share this important phase?
FA: We joined forces with Cannon Tecnos and made a team that worked side by side for several months. We knew what we wanted and we designed it, Cannon brought in the know-how related with
FA: As you can see, the final result is quite impressive: the Cannon line covers 100x20 metres, reaching 10 metres of height. The parts flow from one working station to the next – we have two for the rear, five for the fuselage and two for the front – with the precision and the timing that we specified. This plant does exactly what we expected, and the electronic control designed and programmed by Cannon Automata helps us greatly in setting all the operative parameters and in saving all the production data, for an accurate and reliable certification of the produced quality. Our standards require a full control of every step, to be able to certify each component of our M-346. Avionics rules are notorious for their severity!
CN: Do you expect now, having completed his positive experience, to duplicate it for other plants of Alenia Aermacchi ?
FA: With the experience acquired we would now simplify some details of this manufacturing concept, but we could definitely apply it to the assembly of other large aircraft parts. Developing a project for the assembly of a new airplane, whose forecasted numbers and complexity of project are similar to those of the M346, it would definitely make sense to apply this method to their production.
This complex line,wholly built by Cannon for Alenia Aermacchi’s Venegono factory in Italy, allows for the construction of the twin- turbofan M346, today’s most advanced lead-in fighter trainer aircraft. An Automatically Guided Vehicle transports the three parts of the airplane through the service stations where all the composites and aluminium-alloy components are fitted on the structure. All this happens with a precision of few tenths of millimetre!
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