Hop down to a metal fabrication shop in Utah or your local town and you’ll see aluminum and other metals scattered around in various forms. Enter a factory that makes aircraft and you’ll see the same thing—except the scale of metal fabrication goes further than simple car frames.
The process of creating aircraft nowadays can take as short as nine months, thanks to technological advancements. Much like other metal fabrication process, the assembly of an aircraft follows a simple process: design, construction, and assembly.
Aircraft production begins in the design stage. What the aircraft needs to be capable of, how these objectives can be reached, and the specifications of the plane’s various parts are decided in the very beginning of the fabrication process.
Engineers and various personnel sketch out the plane’s design by inputting and translating their calculations on computers. These plans are tweaked until they resemble a model airplane that they then simulate repeatedly. Simulations are used to check if the theory behind airplane parts are checked out.
Parts of the airplane design that pass computer simulations are created in real time piecemeal. These individual parts are then tested in wind tunnels and other stressors. Plane assembly and manufacturing can take up to nine months for extremely talented manufacturers—planning a good plane can take up to four years.
During the design stage, manufacturers decide on what materials to use for their planes. Aluminum, carbon fiber, and titanium are commonly preferred by manufacturers. Aluminum is strong, ductile, inexpensive, and performs as well as steel and iron in aircraft due to its unique strength and lighter weight. Lightweight carbon fiber is used for aircraft like A350 because of its fuel-saving capabilities and its resistance to corrosion and flight fatigue. Titanium, while expensive, is preferred for larger planes because of its high strength, low density, and corrosion resistance.
Once the plane’s design is finalized and its materials assembled, it’s time for construction. Major components are fabricated simultaneously, but separately. Multiple companies work to create minor components for bigger pieces, e.g. window manufacturers supply the thick panes used for the cockpit and the body of the airplane.
Among the biggest parts of the airplane that are assembled this way are the fuselage, cockpit, engines, wings, and undercarriage. Parts of the same airplane can be constructed in different parts of the world before they are transferred to the main assembly site.
All finished parts end up at the main plant of the plane’s main company. The same company can also assemble the major parts of an airplane, though it’s rare for companies to put together more than one aircraft at a time.
Each part is assembled en masse or through production lines focused on specific airplane parts. Wings can be crafted by a specific team, and so can the fuselage if the plane is big enough. The plane is then assembled and inspected multiple times for imperfections or hazards.
The airplane then undergoes tests to make sure all of its parts are in good working order. Electronic systems, engines, wings, and various other parts are thoroughly checked in this stage. Finally, the plane is touched up for delivery.
While not everyone can build an airplane, anyone with sufficient interest can pick up supplies from their local metal fabrication shop and build their own model plane or any other metalwork.