GDC Technics and Lufthansa Techniks experts work on a grand scale as they reveal the challenges and rewards of wide body completions.
Even in an industry used to technological innovation, where exotic materials and exacting requirements are daily routine and extreme performance a measure of success, widebody aircraft completions focus smart minds and test engineering conventions. The challenge relates directly to aircraft size, essentially the sheer volume of equipment a widebody cabin has space for, along with the associated wiring and power generation needs and, critically, aircraft weight.
Less important, but a factor that should not be ignored, is the additional prestige that a widebody attracts, for the owner and completion centre. Ken Tackett, Director of Planning and Aircraft Services at GDC Technics, says: “We consider all projects important, but widebodies do allow us to showcase our capabilities more effectively.”
Neil Marshall, Chief Engineer at GDC, explains some of the challenges: “Widebodies, by nature of being larger, afford customers the opportunity to implement more features into their aircraft, including more extensive IFE systems with multiple large-screen monitors. Wet systems, including showers, become possible, while ceiling lighting systems can be significantly more expansive and complex.
“All these features require power, control and wiring, so looms, for example, are typically larger and more extensive on widebody aircraft. But wireless technologies and other innovations are being developed and will help combat the weight challenge that comes with the need for larger looms.”
Headquartered in Fort Worth, Texas, GDC Technics is among the key widebody completion players. The company prides itself on what it terms ‘three pillars of exceptional aircraft capabilities: Engineering, Programs and Synchronicity’. Describing the latter concept, GDC spokeswoman Holly Boyles says: “Synchronicity is the exclusive process we use to complete aircraft modifications completely in-house and in minimum downtime.
“Our engineering and programs departments use Synchronicity to create cutting-edge technology solutions for the unprecedented challenges they face – GDC recently completed the first ever Ka-band installation on a VIP Boeing 787 for example. Our craftsmen handle new challenges with an experienced and calculated approach, a policy we believe sets GDC Technics apart in the industry.”
Boeing’s pioneering 787 structure helped achieve high performance through a light airframe, but: “Its predominantly composite fuselage posed new challenges for completions companies,” GDC Chief Engineer, Neil Marshall recalls. The industry initially struggled to tackle the Dreamliner effectively, but GDC has since become something of an expert on the type.
“With composites, traditional methods for the modification of, or attachment to the OEM structure, do not always apply,” Marshall says. “A partnership with the OEM for any new fuselage design, but especially with the Dreamliner’s composite fuselage, is crucial to the success of a completions project depending upon the modification. We’ve established a very positive working relationship with Boeing, at least taking their guidance, and for major mods partnering to develop unique Service Bulletin installations.”
Thanks to its wide-ranging capability, GDC’s competencies include avionics, both for the cabin and on the flight deck. It’s a competency exercised when customers presented with the multiple options of the latest dedicated IFE and cabin management systems (CMS), also consider the possibilities of integrating their favourite off-the-shelf consumer components; again, the widebody’s cabin volume exponentially expands the scope for integration and innovation.
Brett Jackson, GDC’s Director of Programs, says: “We have the skilled engineering talent and technicians to be able to adopt and install the latest IFE/CMS and connectivity, in the cockpit or cabin. ‘Off-the-shelf’ is a loose term, but could you install a custom Bang & Olufsen entertainment system into an aircraft? Yes, by applying the correct engineering and certification to comply with the requirements for installing COTS [commercial off the shelf equipment]. The challenges arise when the customer requests that the system be wireless and operated by all and any PEDs; that’s difficult but by no means impossible – we pride ourselves on ‘Engineering the Impossible’.”
According to Holly Boyles, these capabilities are particularly important to GDC’s offering. “While design is crucial, what defines us as an industry leader is our ability to be ahead of the curve with electronics and wireless capabilities. Two exceptional features include our ability to perform Ka-band installations and our seamlessly integrated CMSs, which give passengers fingertip control over the whole cabin. We see that the industry is headed towards global wireless connection, hands-free capabilities and even voice-activated virtual assistants. Whatever it may be, GDC aims to be at the forefront of ingenuity.”
Also a leader in widebody completion, Lufthansa Technik’s route into the business contrasts dramatically with GDC’s. Wieland Timm,
LHT’s Vice President Sales VIP & Special Mission Aircraft, explains: “Lufthansa Technik provides technical support to a large fleet of Lufthansa and customer Airbus A310, 330, 340, 350 and 380, and Boeing 747, 767, 777 and 787 widebodies. We’re therefore familiar with the technical aspects of these aircraft from the points of view of support and operation. This experience continually flows into our conversion projects for VVIP, special mission, and government customers. To date, we’ve converted almost 140 VVIP and VIP aircraft, including more than 25 Boeing 747s.”
LHT has also broadened its expertise through partnerships with industry leaders, creating unique design, IFE and lighting packages. Among them, the LHT/Panasonic IDAIR joint venture is dedicated to creating ‘next level’ CMS and IFE packages, while INAIRVATION boasted early expertise in lighting systems. An LHT and F/LIST joint venture, it pushed the state of the art in lighting with preferred partners Schott and DesignQ. Interestingly, the INAIRVATION brand has since developed into a provider of pre-engineered retrofit cabins for Bombardier and Gulfstream jets.
But this is only half the story, as Timm reveals: “Our close cooperation with the OEMs is also a special honour for LHT. It demonstrates the increased level of interest the OEMs have in our technical solutions. It also benefits our customers, of course, and leads to technological innovations. Also, it’s important not to forget, for example, our Mercedes cabin, offering new entertainment and cabin management with so-called black panel technology.”
Of course, GDC’s capability is cabin wide, fully encompassing the scope and vast quantity of materials and structures involved in a widebody project. GDC’s Ken Tackett says: “We manufacture complete cabin interiors and install them at our facilities. Dealing with material challenges is inherent to the business, the most effective method being to have a good plan and sequence of procurement and manufacturing.”
Asked to define a typical widebody completion timeline, Tackett notes: “In the VVIP world the word ‘typical’ is seldom used, since each aircraft is unique. There are many factors that go into determining the proper timescale for a project, including customer options, interior quality standards, airframe limitations, and OEM involvement. All of that said, a standard 777-300ER would be scheduled for 18 months.”
LHT also keeps its cabin competency in-house, helping ensure quality and timely delivery, but also placing the experts on hand to face particular challenges. Among the latter, Timm reveals details of a past 747-8 project: “The design required that no wood veneer should be used for the cabin surfaces. Instead, natural stone, fibre devices, the finest leather, metallic treatments and exclusive fabrics were used. At the same time, the aircraft’s IFE system was a network-based, on-demand media system including more than 200 networked, interacting devices.”
Even for the major players, widebody completion is a specialist service delivered in its entirety from a limited number of locations, albeit with global back up. GDC Technics states that its global presence ensures a flight time of less than four flying hours for any of its clientele. The Fort Worth corporate headquarters includes an 840,000ft2 hangar capable of green completions, refurbishments and maintenance services for Boeing and Airbus narrow and wide body aircraft, with support from a second facility in San Antonio, Texas.
Further units in Poole, England and Oberpfaffenhofen, Germany, support the North American completion centres, while a Riyadh, Saudi Arabia site serves as an engineering hub for GDC’s worldwide efforts. The company’s Holly Boyles reveals: “We’re also set on a future African location in Morocco, to better serve potential clients around the world.”
Lufthansa Technik’s widebody completions hail only from the Centre of Competence at its Hamburg headquarters. “Here we have all the necessary craft groups in-house, enabling us to rapidly produce the highest quality work and offer non-standard solutions. Our Welcome Home Design for the A350/Boeing 787 demonstrates our design competence,” Timm says. And yet despite this clear expertise, the company’s VIP and VVIP maintenance offering is considerably wider.
“One of our primary areas of business is providing complete technical support for aircraft throughout their entire lifecycle. This includes the cabin, upgrades and complete remodelling. In 2016 we worked on approximately 65 aircraft, with tasks including simple A Checks, through modifications, to complete cabin overhauls.”
Customer expectations in terms of technical and design services have risen significantly over the past few years and it’s a trend Lufthansa Technik expects to see continue, although with a caveat. “At the same time, the authorities have imposed far stricter certification requirements – including fire tests and the use of glass – making it difficult to simply implement what customers want. But we predict innovative solutions for technical features and materials, and more flexible room design in the aircraft.