About a week ago we visited several companies in Bordeaux, including Safran. Although we weren’t able to talk pictures, they did give us a guided tour of their facility. The company is a large conglomerate of many smaller companies and is a fairly new company, forming very recently in 2005, but does business all over the world reaching markets in North America, Latin America, Europe, Africa, and Asia. Safran was different than many of the companies that we had toured thus far during the program as the facility that we had toured has a focus on aerospace propulsion and produces missiles, rockets, and satellites. The facility, currently known as Herakles, produces the M51 missile amongst other components. We were given an in-depth tour of the facility and were guided through the production process.
Safran is an aircraft and rocket engine development company. They were initially formed when SNECMA, a component manufacturer group, and SAGEM, a security company, merged together in 2005. SNECMA is now currently a subsidiary of the Safran group.
Snecma Propulsion Solide, now known as Herakles, currently has just over 300 personnel. It’s located just outside of Bordeaux in a small town called Hailsham. The facility designs, develops, and manufactures solid propellant engines and composites specifically for military, space, and civil applications. Some of the big accomplishments of the facility include the production of the M45 and M51 rockets and the Ariane 5 and Vega satellite launchers. The facility is at the center of the Aerospace Technology Hub in Europe. They have developed various technologies for rocket propulsion, including nozzle and engine design, and have implemented those technologies in all of their rockets and missiles, including the M45 and the M51 missiles. The Ariane 5 satellite launcher engine was able to generate over 300 tons of thrust due to the new advances in technology developed by the company. Their new generation of missiles, the M51, is composed of composites, carbon fiber, and epoxy materials. The new design allows for much better efficiency and produces a lot less noise.
The facility in Bordeaux mainly produces nozzles. These nozzles are installed in the M51 submarine launched ballistic missile and European launch vehicles such as the Ariane 5. The nozzle assembly line for both products are separated. The nozzles are made with great precision from robust materials to sustain the high exit pressure of the exhaust gases, which could reach 6.5 MPa in the solid booster rockets.
The production of nozzles starts from wrapping metal sheets into different sections of the bell shaped nozzle. This is done by a winding machine that uses a circular geometry as the nozzle framework. Then the wound metal coil is formed into the exact shape of the nozzle by the forming machine that generates a pressure of up to 33 MPa and reaches a temperature of 2000°C. With the nozzle sections completed, they will be sent to the drilling machine to drill the holes for bolts and gas release holes. A total of 9000 holes will be completed. A non-destructive inspection is conducted afterwards. Inspection by UV radiation is used for checking any cracks and unwanted holes that could potentially cause leakages. After ensuring the piece is in good conduction, it is sent to the cleaning station for sand blasting, degreasing and auto washing before moving into the white room. The white room is where each of the individual pieces are glued together, the most important part of the production line. Under controlled humidity and temperature, a 5-man crew applies composite glue to bond the pieces together. At this point it’s essentially like a giant game of Legos as each of the parts come together. At the end, a reinforced rubber layer is attached to the outer surface as a thermal protection layer to separate the nozzle heat from main body of the rocket. With 2 teams of 12 people, a production line is capable of producing approximately 12 nozzles a year.
The visit of the SNECMA production line in Bordeaux was very in depth. It showed us the production process of rocket nozzles from the beginning to the end. However, the production line was not the entirety of the visit. Before touring the factory, we had an opportunity to see the showroom that showed the intricacies of the past SNECMA products and the technologies that they were composed of. We were able to physically see the details of the launch vehicles, such as carbon fiber composite structures, rotating nozzle controls, nozzle interiors, and the exact shape of the solid propellant grain. This was definitely an eye-opening experience that allows us to gain a better understanding of spacecrafts and visually experience something that we’ve only seen on paper. Overall the experience was phenomenal, and truly a memorable experience that allowed us to get a better look into the aerospace industry in Europe, and specifically into the Safran Group.