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SME and NAIR Host Aerospace Composites Forum

Dr. John Russell
By Dr. John Russell Chief, Structure Technologies Branch, Air Force Research Laboratory

The SME Composites Technical Community and the National Institute for Aviation Research co-hosted an Aerospace Composites Forum in July at Wichita State University. Leading scientists and engineers from government, industry, and academia discussed trends and offered predictions for the next decade regarding military and commercial aviation needs, as well as the urban air mobility (UAM) market. Seven major themes were covered:

Next-generation materials: Materials matter when making step-change improvements in vehicle design and production throughput. Areas of study include materials enabled by artificial intelligence (A.I.), biosynthesis of monomers and ceramic precursors, self-healing composites, and additive manufacturing (AM) of continuous fiber composites.

Design: The airframe is a relatively minor and low-risk part of the overall program scope. To drive weight savings, the biggest impact is realized during system development when big bones are designed. Any actions later will have a negligible effect on overall weight. New thinking is centered around topology optimization at the vehicle level that takes advantage of metal and composite AM to enable non-orthogonal structures, located only where the loads are predicted to propagate through a part or assembly. Also, increasing longitudinal stiffness by 50 percent and open hole compression by 20 percent will significantly lower composite weight.

Low-cost agile manufacturing: Several technologies are being researched to enable high-volume manufacturing. This includes non-aerospace composite processes to boost volume and curb costs, and low-cost tooling or toolless manufacturing to drive down non-recurring costs. Automation from fiber lay down to trim/drill/fastening to inspection will help the supply chain make rate.

Quality Assurance: For bonded composite structures, process control is crucial. Manufacturing bonded structures must quantify process uncertainty to take steps to reduce it to certify the structure’s safety. For nondestructive evaluation (NDE), the digital thread stops at the Level III NDE technical. With up to 300 million ultrasonic signals per aircraft, there is too much data for a person to process. Using assisted defect analysis to find indications of poor part quality will significantly augment the ability of an NDE technician.

Qualification and certification: The next frontier is to enable slow-damage growth certification using crack arrest features and accurate behavioral predictions to enable fail-safe certification. As for qualification, to build an airplane, you must demonstrate a stable material/process with a validated process window verified by physical data—not a model extrapolation—for the entire family of product forms, not just pre-preg.

Industry 4.0: Smart factories will collect data (sensing), analyze the data (data science, A.I., process simulation), and will optimize and automate processes. Automation will be required in many environments, including low-volume/high-mix work cells to increase human productivity and reduce health risks.

Applications: For the military, a key driver is the new attritable aircraft concept of limited-life UAVs that are a part of the Next-Generation Air Dominance family of systems that could be built in numbers unseen since World War II. For commercial aviation, NASA created a consortium to demonstrate manufacturing approaches for single-aisle aircraft production that enable manufacturing of composite structures of 80 aircraft per month. Finally, for UAM, dozens of companies are developing “flying taxis” for personnel transportation.

In summary, building tens of thousands of military, commercial, and urban-mobility aircraft requires a focus on the industrialization of composites to facilitate the next leap in material use. Advances in several areas are critical to increasing the current airframe industry base’s throughput and broadening the supply base.

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