Aerospace: The Mother of Invention in Composites
The old adage that says necessity is the mother of invention has proved true time and again. The need for waterproofing ammunition boxes in World War II gave us duct tape. The need for reliable seat cushions on spacecraft gave us memory foam. When it comes to developing carbon fiber and other composites, much of the necessity driving the industry forward comes from the aerospace industry.
Aerospace manufacturers are among the largest consumers of carbon fiber, glass fiber, and other composites. One need look no further than the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 to see just how much manufacturers rely on composite materials. But their needs are not static. As competition continues unabated, they need better composites that are faster to produce, cost less money, and allow them to build bigger and more profitable aircraft.
The potential of composites to meet aerospace needs were on full display at the recent Paris Air Show. The show, known as one of the world’s biggest and best, brings together all of the major players in aerospace. Manufacturers get to come in and show off the best products in their pipelines. One such product was a next-generation composite fuselage panel that owes its existence to three of the aerospace industry’s biggest needs.
1. Faster Production
A common component throughout all of manufacturing is the need to produce goods faster. Faster production means more products built in the same amount of time, which translates into higher revenues. For companies like Boeing and Airbus, faster manufacturing means getting planes to customers more quickly.
According to Composites World’s Jeff Sloan, both Boeing and Airbus have plans to ramp up production significantly. They hope to be producing anywhere between 60 and 100 aircraft per month in the coming years, as opposed to the current rate of 10 to 14. They are going to need faster ways to produce composite fuselage panels if they hope to produce that many planes.
2. Lighter Materials
Carbon fiber is currently a preferred manufacturing material because of its low weight-to-strength ratio. If it were not for carbon fiber, the biggest jumbo jets in commercial aviation would not be flying today. Yet as always, what is now available to aerospace manufacturers is not good enough. They want even lighter options.
Manufacturers are demanding fuselage panels that are several plies thinner. Yet they cannot compromise on structural integrity. That puts the onus on composites providers to come up with better raw materials and new manufacturing methods capable of delivering what aerospace wants.
It’s hard to imagine fuselage panels getting any thinner than they are now. There is some room for improvement there, but meeting aerospace demands will likely require making carbon fiber and glass fiber materials better.
3. Better Manufacturing Methods
The third of the aerospace industry’s three biggest needs is arguably the most important: the need for better manufacturing methods. According to Salt Lake City’s Rock West Composites, much of what they do with composites still relies on a tried-and-true method of creating tools and then making composite parts from those tools.
The process is time and labor intensive. Thankfully, 3D printing is starting to make its way into aerospace manufacturing. Yet aircraft builders want even better solutions. They want to be able to reduce the need for large tools and autoclave curing. They want to be able to create carbon fiber parts as quickly and easily as they can using steel and aluminum.
The aerospace industry needs a lot from their composites partners. That is good in the sense that those needs are forcing innovation and invention.