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The aerospace industry has long been at the leading edge of manufacturing process and technology, constantly pushing the limits of man and machine in the pursuit of enhanced performance, function, and safety.
And while many structural advancements have played a role in the evolution of aerospace manufacturing, carbon composites sit at the forefront. The formula of lightweight + strong + durable is ideal for an industry where these elements always seem to be at odds with one another.
But carbon fiber manufacturing is not easy. It’s a blend of art and science that requires sophisticated precision equipment and highly qualified technicians and engineers, working in tandem to meet extremely tight tolerances.
The ICON A5 Light-sport Aircraft (LSA) is an amphibious, two-seat recreational airplane manufactured by ICON Aircraft. Its airframe is made entirely of carbon fiber, and the plane is designed to be easy to fly, safe to operate, fun, and incredibly versatile, including amphibious capabilities and folding wings that allow for trailering and off-airport storage.
"While many structural advancements have played a role in the evolution of aerospace manufacturing, carbon composites sit at the forefront"
In the beginning, ICON worked with composite manufacturing suppliers for parts, but the team knew that this was an expertise they needed to bring in house to meet their strict standards for part quality, to have better control of the supply chain, and to improve upon its own core competency to manufacturer carbon fiber for itself (and possibly others).
Simply put: ICON had to build the machine in order to build the machine.
In 2016, ICON made the decision to construct a 300,000 sq. ft. Center of Excellence for serial carbon fiber manufacturing. Today, the company employs approximately 300 technicians and engineers at the facility, each of whom is thoroughly trained for specific job functions, including carbon fiber layup, bonding, primer, paint (top coat), and bodywork.
ICON’s composite manufacturing is among the best in the world. What sets them apart from others is the high capacity, high-quality manufacturing processes, precision tooling and equipment, and a highly skilled and trained technical team. These elements, combined with lean manufacturing principles, enable ICON to deliver a capability that is second to none in the industry.
Once the carbon fiber airframes and associated components are completed, they are shipped to ICON’s 120,000 sq. ft. facility in Vacaville, Calif., for final assembly. This facility is where the A5’s 1,650 parts are assembled, including the 77 fabricated composite assemblies and sub-assemblies.
Instead of the typical automated assembly line, the final assembly process at ICON is intentionally not over-automated. The process is a man/machine balance to enable implementation of lean manufacturing principles borrowed from the automotive industry, alongside the ability to customize and adapt without having to reorganize or reprogram complex machinery.
ICON Aircraft has produced and delivered more than 100 ICON A5s. ICON has been through growing pains and learned many lessons along the way, but in the end, they have built an operation that is set up for success, and they are years ahead of other manufacturers looking to leverage carbon fiber for the future of 3D mobility.