The Safran Nacelles site in Colomiers celebrates its 30th anniversary
Specialising in nacelle integration, the Safran Nacelles site in Colomiers (near Toulouse, France) is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. From the modest factory of the 1990s to the beating heart of Safran Nacelles’ integration activities, here is a look back at three decades of history and industrial excellence.
Current employees, pensioners, their partners and families... More than 500 people gathered on 16 September to toast the 30th anniversary of the Safran Nacelles site in Colomiers. It was an opportunity to look back with pride and emotion on the milestones that have marked the rise of this site, as it become the nerve centre of the Safran Nacelles integration network world-wide [see inset].
Europe's first nacelle integration company
The most senior staff knew the company at its founding in 1993. Co-owned by Hurel-Dubois(1) and Shorts Bombardier(2), it was then called SINT (Société Internationale de Nacelles Toulouse) and was dedicated to the Airbus A330 programme with Trent 700 engines from Rolls-Royce. As Europe’s first nacelle integration company, its ambition was to compete with the neighbouring site of Rohr Industrie (now Collins Aerospace), which was involved in several aircraft programmes with GE and Pratt & Whitney engines. The Colomiers site was not chosen by chance, since it met a strategic goal of close proximity to the Airbus final assembly line based in the same town.
However, at the time, civil aviation was in difficulty owing to the Gulf War, and volumes of Trent 700 engines were limited. The 15 or so SINT employees (mechanics, painters, fitters, maintenance operator, etc.) had to be patient... and versatile! “In 1995-96, the company had to fight to win contracts and increase workload, notably by bringing in a new programme - the BMW-Rolls Royce BR710 engine for the bizjets market - as well as tasks other than integration,” remembers Christine Miatto, who was hired in 1994 and is now General Resources and Assets Manager. “I could be called on at a moment’s notice to change a nacelle in Canada,” recounts Patrice Chantal, hired in 1995 as mechanic and now Industrial Methods and Maintenance Manager. “We didn’t count our hours, but there was a good atmosphere and we were close-knit. This company was ours... our survival depended on its survival! ”
Finally, in the early 2000s, their perseverance was rewarded. With the arrival of the A340 programme, Safran Nacelles developed and produced a complete nacelle for the first time and entrusted the Colomiers site with integration. Volumes increased, not least because the A340 was a four-engined jet, unlike the A330 twinjet. Then, Safran Nacelles won new contracts for the A318 and, a few years later, the majestic A380, for which the Colomiers site integrated the nacelles for the two engine types. Nacelle integration of the Falcon 7X from Dassault Aviation came soon after. Lastly, the A320neo (equipped with LEAP-1A engines) and A330neo programmes quite significantly increased nacelle integration volumes in the middle of the following decade. In beating records for incoming orders (and for delivery times), these programmes confirmed the vocation and excellence of the Colomiers site, which had transformed itself to meet this historic challenge.
An agile factory
This wasn’t the first time the factory had had to adapt to its environment. With the arrival of the A380 nacelles, the site had to construct another building and set up larger paint cabins. For the A320neo and A330neo nacelle programmes, the manufacturing tools and ways of working had to be completely redesigned with a view to higher output, without expanding the buildings.
This transformation was inspired by the concept of Lean Manufacturing. This method for optimising industrial performance led the Colomiers site to create a prototype team in 2012 with the greatest confidentiality. This four-person team was asked to develop two pieces of equipment patented by Safran(3). These developments would later become known as the “Engine Smart Trolley”, a platform for transporting engines, and the “Nacelle Smart Trolley” for the transport of nacelle components. They are used throughout the integration process: assembly of engine equipment and nacelle components (air inlet, fan cowls, thrust reverser, and exhaust system), painting, acceptance by Airbus and airlines, delivery to the Airbus Final Assembly Line, and support for on-wing integration. “Thanks to the Smart Trolley, it was no longer operators who had to adapt to their tools, but the other way around,” sums up Patrice Chantal. The Smart Trolley goes up, goes down, and rotates 360°… It can even ‘talk’ with the paint robots to pivot automatically! A true revolution.” Today, Smart Trolleys are also used at the Safran Nacelles integration sites in Hamburg (Germany) and Tianjin (China).
There were other technological breakthroughs: in 2011, the first application test for robotic painting, and then in 2016, the first application of robotic painting on a Nacelle Smart Trolley and the first infra-red drying. “We are currently the only company to paint and sand with robots and/or cobots(4),” Patrice Chantal adds.
An industrial showcase
The Colomiers site currently has almost 280 employees and occupies 20,000 m² of buildings on 55,000 m² of land. “Optimisation of our production resources wasn't the only driver of change for the site. Health, safety and environment issues were also taken into account. The layout of the existing buildings was modified so that compartmentalisation, industrial flows and pedestrian traffic would follow the same watchwords: fluidity, efficiency and safety,” explains Christine Miatto.
The site also has two internal training schools: one for painting and the other for mechanical operations (assembly, fitting, etc.). “Painting is a complex operation,” explains Patrice Chantal. Many current operators came from the automotive industry, but they didn’t have the experience with special processes required for painting on composite materials. They were coached by older staff, who passed along their know-how.” Furthermore, during creation of the other Safran Nacelles integration sites, Colomiers staff trained and supported their new colleagues.
Even with its 30 years of history, the Colomiers site is firmly looking to the future. Operational safety, workstation ergonomics, lower energy consumption... these are challenges for today and for tomorrow. And let's not forget the future contracts the teams are hoping to win!
(1) One of the companies at the origin of Safran Nacelles, purchased by Snecma in 2000.
(2) British company based in Northern Ireland.
(3) Team member Patrice Chantal is co-inventor of these patents.
(4) Collaborative robot.
Integration: A combination of skills
The integration of propulsion systems is a key step in the aircraft manufacturer's supply chain. Here’s how it works...
Safran Nacelles receives the engines mounted with the latest equipment (several hundred parts, including electrical harnesses and hydraulic and pneumatic supply ducts) as well as the exhaust system. In parallel, all the nacelle components - air inlet, fan cowl and thrust reverser - are painted in the airline’s colours.
The airframers and the receiving airlines then visit the integration site to accept their propulsion systems, which are then delivered to the Final Assembly Line (FAL) where Safran Nacelles teams support the airframer in on-wing integration of the engines and nacelles.
By entrusting the integration of propulsion systems to Safran Nacelles, the aircraft manufacturer is ensured of having a complete system close to its FALs, ready for use!
Painting: A colourful business
The painting of the nacelles - the last phase before final integration - requires both skill and precision.
After having checked the assembly in order to guarantee the quality of the multi-layer logos, the first step is to cover the areas that will not be painted. Then a sanding robot takes over. It sands about 90% of the nacelle, thus making the rest of the work easier for operators. Then paint is applied. Once again, robots make the work easier for operators. However, operator know-how remains essential! This is why all new painters - even if they are experienced - go through an internal training phase with accredited painters.
Last comes the logo painting phase, which is a difference maker for the airlines and a subject of close attention for Safran Nacelles. Depending on the level of complexity (some logos can contain 10 or more colours), this operation can take from one day to one week. Lastly, we check the compliance of the nacelle with very specific criteria: thickness, adherence, brightness, “orange peel” texture, runs, bleed through, etc. Only when these criteria have been validated can the nacelle be presented to the customer.