Lighter landings

Aircraft landing gear has historically been manufactured with the same kinds of materials due to high safety records. Now, a UK project will use composites to reduce their weight by nearly a third, whilst also retaining their strength.

A two-year, £28m project titled ‘Large Landing Gear of the Future’ will see Aluminium Matrix Composites (AMC) manufacturer, Alvant, team up with high-technology group and Tier 1 supplier of systems and equipment to the aerospace and defence industries, Safran Landing Systems. The aim of the project is to reduce landing gear weight by as much as 30% – assisting with the aerospace industry’s drive to reduce fuel consumption and carbon emissions.

The project will look at how AMCs can challenge traditional materials in the design and manufacture of landing gear assemblies, by making use of new materials and manufacturing methods, as well as developing technologies that will reduce fuel burn and noise, while also improving reliability and lowering costs.

Current landing gear systems are typically stronger and heavier than necessary, because an outstanding safety record has resulted in proven techniques being perpetuated. However, they account for approximately 3% of aircraft weight, with a corresponding effect on fuel consumption. Safran believes it is possible to reduce this without diminishing the gear’s capabilities or compromising on safety.

Alvant’s contribution, funded by a £513,000 grant from Innovate UK, will enable the design, manufacture and testing of an AMC brake rod, which will target a 30% weight reduction over an equivalent titanium component, while maintaining a comparable strength to steel.

“A key objective of the Large Landing Gear project is to test and demonstrate as many technology advances as possible,” says Richard Thompson, commercial director of Alvant. “This landing gear component is just one of the many ways in which AMCs can help aerospace firms retain strength while reducing weight.”

About AMCs

AMCs are an advanced class of composite materials in which the aluminium is reinforced with a secondary high-performance material, typically a long fibre, short fibre, or particulates, and are suitable for applications where conventional metals are expected to approach or exceed their performance limits.

Production-readiness of AMCs comes at a time of increasing commercial demand for strong but lightweight components in many forms of transportation, as well as industrial and consumer applications. Aerospace, automotive, marine and consumer goods manufacturers are all looking for ways to increase product capabilities and performance while simultaneously meeting ambitious goals for fuel efficiency and sustainability.

Compared to unreinforced metals, AMCs have higher strength, greater stiffness, lower weight, superior wear resistance and lower coefficients of thermal and electrical conductivity. AMCs also offer multiple advantages over polymer fibre reinforced materials, such as carbon composites. These include: higher transverse strength and stiffness, a higher thermal operating range, better wear resistance, superior damage tolerance, and easier repairability. This means AMCs can be used to engineer more durable lightweight components for harsh environments.

AMCs claim to offer potential to an industry that needs a step change in performance in order to meet ever stringent market and legislative demands. Significant weight reductions compared to legacy materials offers manufactures the chance to meet the challenge of reduced weight and fuel burn while maintaining reliability and lowering whole-life ownership costs.

According to Alvant, AMCs can have superior strength compared to steel at less than half the weight. This means highly loaded components made from traditional metals, such as steel, titanium and aluminium, can be replaced by lightweight, low inertia parts without any increase in package size.

Liquid Pressure Forming

Previously known as Composite Metal Technology (CMT), Alvant was originally founded to explore the potential of Liquid Pressure Forming (LPF), the process for manufacturing AMCs.

The company’s original, primary role was, as a research and development operation, to develop and refine LPF - which ultimately resulted in the creation of the more sophisticated process known as Advanced Liquid Pressure Forming (ALPF).

ALPF is the method by which Alvant brings together aluminium, which acts as the matrix, and a high-strength reinforcement fibre to create a high-performance Aluminium Matrix Composite material.

“Alvant developed and refined Aluminium Matrix Composites during the years when high-tech industries were going through the honeymoon period with polymer composites, such as widely-used carbon fibre reinforced composites,” explains Alvant’s technical director, Gemma Christian. “Nowadays, certain disadvantages with polymer composites are better understood, and Alvant has transformed from an R&D company into the provider of high-strength, low-weight Aluminium Matrix Composites.

“Traditional metallic materials are reaching their limit of use and polymer composites, such as carbon composite, have damage tolerance and thermal operating limits.With this, design and procurement teams are finding there are diminishing returns by specifying these materials in their products.”

According to Christian, companies that will benefit the most will typically be those that are searching to enhance the capabilities of their products, while also respecting sustainability targets. For example, in the aerospace industry, OEMs could benefit from reduced emissions, maintenance, repair and operating costs.

Alternative uses for AMCs

Growing interest in AMCs is affirmed by big-brand collaborative projects and government funding. In the last year alone, aerospace companies Rolls-Royce and Safran Landing Systems and car maker Ford Motor Company, have all engaged in collaborative projects:

  • A £1.6m, 30-month R&D project with Ford Motor Company; developing a new casting method for the manufacture of hybrid-AMC components for high-performance production cars. Since the project began in October 2017, £751,000 of grant funding has been awarded by Innovate UK.
  • A three-year, £1.2m R&D project under the ‘Make it lighter with less’ competition, run by Innovate UK, and collaborating with GE Aviation, electric motors and controllers producer YASA Motors, and the National Composites Centre. This project created new computer aided engineering (CAE) software modelling packages for the design and analysis of AMCs to reduce product development lead times.
  • A £7.9m four-year collaborative project to bring AMC technology to production readiness in April 2018, which included £1.9m of funding from the Government-backed Advanced Manufacturing Supply Chain Initiative (AMCSI).

Tom Austin-Morgan

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