The future of commercial aircraft wings

Hayley Everett

Pushing the boundaries of innovation, integration and industrialisation for commercial aircraft wings.

Anyone working within the aviation industry will be familiar with Airbus’ family of A320 narrow-body twin-jet airliners. Since its first introduction in April 1988 by Air France, the aircraft has served destinations ranging from hot desert environments to icy Antarctic landing sights, and fulfilled route demand from low and high-density to longer-range transcontinental services.


Bruce Kirby, Wing R&T Project Leader at Airbus, has been working for Airbus for 20 years in areas ranging from research and early development programmes up to certification. In 2015, Kirby moved back into the R&D department as Head of Stress and in 2017 became one of the project leaders working on Airbus’ Wing of Tomorrow programme. The programme is addressing a myriad of challenges currently facing the aviation sector, including fulfilling increased demands in performance and production rates for the next generation of fuel efficient aircraft.

“When we first brought out the A320, we expected to only deliver around 400 of these aircraft,” says Kirby. “Today, we’ve delivered over 10,000 and we have over 6,000 aircraft on backlog. However, the A320 wasn’t particularly designed with assembly or manufacturability in mind with regards to the wings. One of our focuses for Wing of Tomorrow is design around manufacturability, but primarily it will be centred around performance. We are aiming to achieve performance-driven, high aspect ratio, high span wings that have improved performance. To do this, we’re looking at lightweighting by introducing composite materials.”


At its core, the Wing of Tomorrow programme is exploring radical new approaches to the design and manufacture of aircraft wings, from the best in materials, manufacturing and assembly techniques to new technologies in aerodynamics and wing architecture. “Of course, Airbus can’t do this on its own,” Kirby says. “Wing of Tomorrow has brought together 40 different partners from around the world who are developing over a hundred different technologies to be validated through three full-scale wing demonstrators.”

Airbus opened a new Wing Technology Development Centrea (WTDC) at its Filton site in July last year, within which the wing demonstrators are housed. The new facility will help Airbus accelerate the design, build and testing of wings for next-generation aircraft by using the latest technology and demonstrators to improve wing performance.


So, which technologies will be validated using the wing demonstrators? “High performance means lower fuel burn, and lower fuel burn means fewer emissions,” explains Kirby. “We achieve this through a high span width – the longer the wing, the more lift we can generate. However, the deeper the wing the more drag we generate. So, it needs to be a long, slender wing, like those of an Albatross for example. However, this narrow-body aircraft must be able to fit inside all the usual gate sizes at airports around the world, which are restricted by width. So, this led us to developing a wing with a folding wing tip which remains locked down during flight but is then folded up once the aircraft has landed. And this has meant we are having to fundamentally change the way that we assemble the wing to deliver a more modular design that can be manufactured separately and added later in the assembly process.”


Composites are one of the key technologies that could enable wing components to be produced with significantly reduced equipment and tooling costs, while also enabling a faster production cycle.

“We’ve been working with material suppliers developing low-cost, highly-responsive composites which lend themselves to integration, such as having multiple parts in a single part,” Kirby continues. “This can greatly reduce, for instance, the number of bolts we use during assembly by tens or hundreds of thousands. We have been developing new fuel systems, electrical systems and semiconductor technologies for the primary structure of the fuel tank, as well as harnessing technologies such as dry fibre infusion and resin transfer moulding to create composite winged skins far more quickly than in the past.”

To develop the wing covers, Airbus has been working with the National Composites Centre (CNN) to design what the partners claim is the most advanced composite manufacturing capability in the world. Leveraging digital technologies, design tools and robotics, NCC’s High Rate Deposition Cell can layup composite plies 5m wide and up to 20m long in a single movement, transforming wing production by reducing the number of individual components required and increasing production rates. Modern wing covers made from composite carbon-fibre filled materials, moulded and infused with resin via the high rate deposition process could reduce the number of pieces required to build a wing cover from roughly 100,000 to just 150.

“Aviation’s next big challenge, without a doubt, is how we reach decarbonisation of emissions by 2050,” Kirby adds. “There’s no silver bullet that is going to get us there, instead there are a multitude of things that must be developed at the same time, such as Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF), hydrogen technologies, advanced technologies and design for improved performance and lower fuel burn, infrastructure, operations and air traffic management, and so on. With Wing of Tomorrow, it is all about performance to decrease fuel burn and reduce emissions, which is a key stepping stone for the industry towards decarbonisation.”

Bruce Kirby was speaking at Advanced Engineering 2023. For more information visit