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Emerging Markets Will Demand High-Rate Production Systems for Advanced Composites

Bob Yancey
By Bob Yancey Business Development Director, Hexcel

The adoption of advanced composite materials for aerospace applications has been growing steadily since the early 1980s. And the reason is clear—they make aircraft lighter, stronger, and more durable than counterparts such as metals.

Today, use of composite materials is skyrocketing, comprising more than 50 percent of an aircraft’s primary structure, such as the Airbus A350 XWB. It is believed that future commercial and defense aircraft may become more than 80 percent composite as demand grows for more lightweight, fuel-efficient aircraft generating fewer emissions.

However, some emerging markets are projecting significantly higher build rates of more than 100 vehicles per month. This includes the Advanced Air Mobility market that is projecting volumes in line with luxury automobile production. It also includes the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) market, where the defense industry is planning for UAV swarms and attritable systems with only a single mission use that would require production volumes in the hundreds or even thousands per month.

These volumes will significantly strain existing supply chains and manufacturing processes, which is pushing the entire composites eco-system to develop, certify, and implement material systems and manufacturing processes that can meet the projected demand.

High-Volume AM Aerospace Applications

Over the years, material systems have been developed for high-rate production of composites, but those have been primarily in industries other than aerospace. The challenge now is to enhance these systems and certify them for aerospace use, both for passenger-carrying and unmanned systems. These include:

Fast-curing epoxy systems—These are similar to those currently used for automotive and consumer product applications. Curing can occur in a few minutes in compression molding and doesn’t require an autoclave.

Infusion systems—Dry fiber preforms are infused with resins under heat and pressure. Resin infusion offers the promise of producing integrated structures without the need for fasteners or bonding.

Thermoplastic matrix systems—Thermoplastics can be stored indefinitely at room temperature, and can be consolidated in seconds, are well-suited to automation, add toughness when compared to thermoset systems, and can be more easily recycled.

Additive manufacturing—For complicated geometric parts such as brackets, fixtures, and ducting, additive manufacturing with carbon-fiber/thermoplastic systems can produce hundreds of parts per month at an economical price with a quick turnaround.

In addition to material systems suitable for high-rate production, manufacturing equipment and processes are needed to allow for high-rate and highly automated production. Automated equipment is used today but a lot of innovation is still needed to make the equipment and processes faster and less expensive.

In addition to the equipment and process innovation, in-process inspection and sensor improvements are needed so this equipment can run with little human supervision and still produce the high-quality parts required for aviation. Certification protocols will need to accept the in-process data collection as part of the overall part and vehicle certification.

The solution lies in collaboration and cooperation among material suppliers, equipment vendors, platform manufacturers, and regulatory bodies. Together, we will be able to significantly improve composite component throughput and lower overall composite component costs while maintaining quality that will deliver benefits to the entire aerospace industry.

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