Composites to plateau

The use of composites throughout industry has been on an upward and expanding path this last decade. It was kicked off, at least in a major way, by Boeing when it announced the Dreamliner all the way back in December 2003.

But composite materials are topping out, at least within aerospace. The current ratio of composites to other materials for mid-sized airliners, and above, will remain around the 55% mark. The fact is, composites, like all materials, cannot do everything, and metals and indeed plastics are innovating as much as possible to take that ratio back down below 50%.

Indeed, for smaller airliners, aluminium is making a strong case to be the material of choice for future primary structures. GKN Aerospace said to me last month that it would ‘probably’ consider the material in front of composites on some smaller aircraft, citing that it is cheaper, easier to process and recycle, and that aluminium developers had not stood still in taking on lightweight composite materials.

The aerospace industry, and others, are demanding faster processability from materials. Weight is no longer the must-have key driver. Mounting back logs are putting both Airbus and Boeing under pressure to get aircraft out the door. Chasing a few kg here or there is no longer the obsession it once was.

Modern aircraft are close to optimal, and to take much more weight out using composites will require a radical shift in design, away from the cigar tube with wings to something like a flying wing. That, however, is probable the best part of 25 years off.

Nothing stands still though. As one material begins to plateau, another enters. Additive manufacturing is offering fresh ground for innovation and it seems to be gathering pace in aerospace. Although qualifying the material for flight is proving somewhat long winded, it’s been said that 3D printing is where composites were in the 70s. Imagine that!

Of course, composites in the automotive sector is a different story altogether. Here, the material is set for a massive increase in production volumes that will dwarf anything previously seen in aerospace. And while processability is still the key driver, answers are coming. So I’d expect the composites sector, as a whole, to remain healthy for some time yet.

Justin Cunningham

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