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New Rules, New Game


Success in the changing aerospace industry will require a look at first principles, and an understanding of the impact of new materials on traditional production methods.


By: Jim Watkins
Project Management, Composites
Cincinnati Lamb, UNOVA
Industrial Automation Systems
Cincinnati Operations
Hebron, KY  

If you want some insight into the changes likely to take place in the aerospace industry over the next decade or so, the history of the auto industry during the '70s and '80s is a good place to look for clues. At the beginning of that time, the auto industry was highly integrated, with each company making nearly all the components for its vehicles in plants it either owned or effectively controlled. By the end of that period, only a few major high-value components were still made in-house, and even those were active subjects for outsourcing discussions. Virtually everything else was gone, or well on the way.

The companies themselves are evolving from manufacturers of their own brands to assemblers and marketers of components built--and in more and more cases even designed--by others. This trend continues to accelerate, with whole subassemblies now being built by suppliers, and shipped to just-in-time assembly lines to be mated with other vendor-designed-and-built "modules" to produce a finished vehicle.

If that sounds familiar, it should, because the same forces that re-shaped the auto industry are now coming fully to bear on the aerospace business. Only this time there is an additional factor that the carmakers didn't have to contend with--a radical change in materials from metals to composites for many essential components.

It appears that both of these trends, outsourcing and the use of composites for major structural components, will emerge to full maturity in Boeing's newly announced 7E7 project. The result will be a profound restructuring of the industry and its supplier base over the next few years. As is always the case with change, there will be winners and losers, and those at the top of the supplier list today won't necessarily be there tomorrow.

According to their public statements, Boeing plans to assemble the 7E7 in a revolutionary new kind of facility using neither overhead cranes nor traditional technologies. Large "monolithic" subassemblies, most of them supplied complete by vendors, will be assembled--by a workforce much smaller than that of any comparable facility today-- Today, Boeing's arch-rival, Airbus, employs roughly 300 people in its final assembly operation in Toulouse, France, to produce five A330/340 aircraft per month.

It appears that many of the 7E7's monolithic subassemblies may be outsourced to suppliers--many of them outside the US--and shipped to the Everett, WA assembly facility. Virtually all of the aircraft's major structural components, including wings, fuselage, and empennage, will be primarily composite, relegating aluminum and other metals to uses in which their greater weight is justified by specific application requirements.

While the 7E7 won't be all-composite, it will be closer to that goal than any commercial aircraft ever built, and it certainly will contain less metal than any existing commercial aircraft of comparable size. The current benchmark is Airbus' new A380, which will use composites for about 40% of its structural weight. The 7E7, with its essentially all-composite wings and fuselage, should easily top that figure.

With both Airbus and Boeing firmly focused on composites, it's a safe bet the current generation of commercial aircraft will be the last in which metals represent 90% or more of the structural weight. For companies supplying metal components to the aerospace industry, this change in materials poses a very real threat. But the equally real trend to outsourcing may offer a way to turn it into a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Composites are produced by laying down a matrix of high-strength fibers, which is then solidified with a resin, typically a thermoset epoxy, to produce a structural component. If the fiber matrix is laid over a mold, the resulting component can be very near net-shape when finished, eliminating many processing steps that would be required to produce it from metal.

The basic automation composite lamination processes are: filament winding, in which a band of narrow fiber bundles called "tows" is wound around a mandrel; fiber placement, in which a band of tows is placed over a mold; and tape laying, in which a relatively wide band of fiber "tape" is either laid over a mold, or placed on a flat surface to produce a sheet, which is then further processed.

Filament winding is widely used to produce water tanks and other essentially cylindrical components. Fiber placement typically is used to produce complex shapes, because the relatively narrow tow can accommodate fairly sharp curves without bridging. Typically, tape-laying is used to produce large components with flat or gently curving surfaces. Of the three processes, fiber placement and tape laying are the most applicable to aircraft structural components.

One of the major advantages of composite components is that engineers can design-in specific performance characteristics by controlling the placement of the tows, or tape. It's possible, for example, to produce composite components with highly directional strength characteristics that are stiff in one axis, yet flexible in another.

The other major advantage is a higher strength/weight ratio that lets composites compete very favorably against metals in many applications. In the 7E7 material competition, even an advanced aluminum alloy that was 10% lighter than existing materials lost out to composites in major structural applications.

For those accustomed to the precision tolerances involved in metalcutting operations, composite fabrication seems impossibly imprecise. In fact, even today many components used in high-performance military aircraft are laid up by hand. But this appearance of low precision is deceptive, because a composite gets its strength from the combination of many fibers. In practice, that means any particular section of tow, or tape, is relatively unimportant to the overall strength and performance of the whole.

Factors that matter in composite fabrication are consistency and the speed with which the fibers can be laid. Consistency, because much of the ultimate performance of the component is determined by how the fibers are laid in relation to one another. Speed, because it has a major influence on ultimate component cost.

Automatic fiber placement and tape laying machines have been available for many years, and their technology is well understood and highly developed. Essentially, they are large gantry-type or horizontal machines with the tape-placement apparatus suspended from a traveling beam. The fiber itself, either tow or tape, is carried in spools on the machine or placement head, which also contains all of the mechanisms necessary to manage and place the fiber.

These machines are all CNC, and there is design and manufacturing software available to optimize their capabilities. For anyone familiar with today's CNC metalcutting machine tools and supporting software, the transition to fiber placement or tape-laying will be relatively quick and painless. This fact gives current aerospace suppliers, and others engaged in precision metalworking, a leg up on potential competitors for this important new market, even if those current suppliers are not now involved with composites or are producing hand-laid components.

As one of the global leaders in the use of composites in commercial aircraft, Airbus' experience can provide some useful insights into the likely evolution of the OEM/supplier relationship as these materials become more common. Two trends stand out:

First, Airbus suppliers are being forced to adopt automated production technologies. In fact, Airbus frowns on quotes for components produced for the A380 project by manual processes, and is phasing out existing contracts for manually processed components on other aircraft.

The reasons are cost and quality. Manual production simply cannot compete on a long-term cost basis with automated systems for most components today. And the disparity will grow rapidly as new generations of tape-laying and fiber-placement technology come on line. Various forming and molding technologies will make even small components cost-effective to produce from materials created by automated tape-laying systems.

Even more important, however, is the fact that automated processes are readily certified because they are highly consistent and repeatable. Not only does this mean components produced on automated systems are more reliable part-to-part, it also means they can be designed with less of a safety factor to compensate for manufacturing variability, thus making them lighter and less expensive.

The second trend among Airbus suppliers is closely related to the first, and it shows up most clearly in the recently let contracts for the A380. Many of those contracts went to suppliers who invested in automated composite production capacity, even though they had less experience with the components involved than other bidders.

In effect, a successful history of producing a certain class of components in metal, or even in hand-laid composite materials, was less important than the ability to produce A380 components on automated systems. As a result, several large suppliers with long-term relationships on other Airbus aircraft were not successful bidders for A380 work.

Winners and losers will emerge. With Boeing clearly committed to composites for the 7E7, and probably all future aircraft, the handwriting is clearly on the wall. The Airbus A380 supplier decisions were driven by cost and quality issues, which will be no different in Boeing's case. Automated production systems are certain to be the key assets required to remain competitive in the long-term, and very likely the key assets required to participate in significant 7E7 work. Those systems include both tape layers for wing and empennage work, and fiber-placement machines for fuselage and fairing components.

This situation may appear discouraging to suppliers of metal components who need to make the transition to composite production, but the news is not all bad. While it is true that capital investment in composite production capabilities will be required, if that investment is made in new technology, the resulting systems will be much more productive than those already in place within the industry. Such acquisitions give the newer competitors a potential cost and quality advantage.

For example, my company has recently introduced a new generation of Contour Tape Laying and Viper fiber placement systems that offer:

  • Improved output in terms of pounds of composite per hour,
  • Improved flexibility in terms of contour following capabilities,
  • Improved quality in terms of placement consistency, and
  • Improved controls in terms of both capabilities and ease of use.

The mechanical aspects of these systems will help reduce the cost of composite components by producing more pounds of composite per hour than existing systems. They will provide substantially more uptime due to improved material handling and component designs optimized for reliability and maintainability.

But the greatest advantage of these next-generation systems is the new application-optimized CNC that has been designed for them. The Cincinnati CM100 control offers an open-architecture, PC-based platform running the Windows operating system that is familiar to virtually anyone with PC experience. It uses a flat, touch-screen user interface and Ethernet-based network communication, making it quick to learn and easy to integrate into new or existing automation systems.

This controller can handle up to 24 coordinated axes and support up to eight split axes to provide the ability to process the most complex parts currently in production or being proposed. It uses noise-immune fiberoptics to connect to intelligent digital servodrives with absolute encoders to ensure precision and reliability. As part of a total system, the control provides sub-millisecond response to machine operations, bidirectional, interpolated-axis error compensation, a four-millisecond servo update time, and six-axis double precision (64-bit) math coordinate generation.

In practical terms, what all of those specifications mean is that these systems are both more productive and easier to use than anything available in the last generation. They also interface seamlessly with common design, process development, and manufacturing software packages to create fully integrated, fully automated production systems that are familiar to most precision manufacturers.

Thirty years ago the domestic auto industry was faced with a radical change in its business environment. As a direct result, many of the best-known names in the industry's supplier community either ceased to exist or disappeared into new, merged entities. In short, those who followed the old model did not make the transition.

Conversely, however, many companies that then were either marginal players or nonparticipants in the automotive market have grown and prospered in the new environment. For the most part, those who succeeded did so by carefully evaluating the opportunities inherent in the new ways of doing business, and then structuring--or restructuring--themselves to take advantage of those opportunities.

The coming changes in the aerospace industry will be no less profound or far-reaching than those the auto industry has experienced and, indeed, still is working to overcome. Using history as a guide, it should be apparent that the aerospace supplier base will be very different in the near future.

Those who recognize the trends driving this change and position themselves to take advantage of the opportunities inherent in the trends will prosper. Those who do not will fall by the wayside. There is absolutely no doubt that one of the most powerful of those trends will be away from metal components of all kinds and toward composite structures.

The best way to manage change is to embrace it and, for the precision metalworking community that supports the aerospace industry, doing so means putting composite production capabilities in place now. The Airbus experience makes this very clear, and there is no reason to expect the Boeing experience to be significantly different.

Those who purposefully manage the transition from metal to composites will have a clear-cut competitive advantage over those who do not. And those who do it sooner rather than later will have the greatest advantage of all. The good news is that the latest generation of automated composite production systems makes the transition much easier than ever before.


This article was first published in the March 2004 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine. 

Published Date : 3/1/2004

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