Favoloro, Offringa and the rest of the team believe that thermoplastics are the next new thing in composites manufacturing. “Currently the percentage ratio of thermoplastics is very small, but the growth potential is very large,” says Offringa. Favoloro echoed his sentiments, stating, “Thermoplastics are just coming into play. The rudder and elevator are just baby steps to full implementation of an all-thermoplastic composite skin for aircraft applications.” Favoloro explains that companies like Gulfstream are making the switch to thermoplastics because it’s a cost savings in energy heat and product material. “Instead of heating the material for an hour at 350 F to 450 F, a thermoplastic only requires a minute or two at around 580 F,” he says. Favoloro also notes that instead of paying $150 per pound for prepeg, a manufacturer can pay a fraction of the cost for a thermoplastic prepreg. “By squeezing out the thermoset technology, thermoplastics can take this maturing technology to the next step,” he states. “In weight alone, if we can eliminate a millimeter of thickness from an airline fuselage, it would equate to a 25 percent savings—and every pound saved shaves $1,000 in fuel per year.”
The team also believes that thermoplastics are alluring because of their green nature. “A thermoplastic is 100 percent recyclable. It can be pulverized and turned into pellets for further usage, whereas a thermoset cure emits VOCs and eventually ends up in an airplane graveyard,” says Favoloro. These characteristics impressed Gulfstream, which is now producing the parts and had its first flight in November 2009.
Replacement Worker, Not Included
Like many states, North Carolina has witnessed its economy undergo great upheaval as its furniture, textile, automotive, marine and other manufacturing sectors have been shrinking. “It became apparent that North Carolina residents needed training for the jobs of the future,” says Ron Bolick, director of the Greensboro-based Advanced Composite Research and Training Center. “Several of us had been working in aerospace, transportation, aviation and composite research and manufacturing areas since the early 90s and saw these as the future path.”
Bolick and others encouraged companies in these sectors to locate in North Carolina, but the companies insisted on higher education curriculum and training centers focused on educating potential and current employees. A tobacco settlement corporation called Golden Leaf Inc. partnered with North Carolina A&T State University proposed the Advanced Composite Research and Training Center.
The center focuses on providing displaced workers the training they need for new jobs by instructors from the composites industry, NASA, military and academic centers. “So far, we’ve trained students, professors, researchers, Air Force personnel and manufacturing plant personnel from various companies and universities—even outside of North Carolina,” says Bolick. “Already, our students have found jobs at a variety of well-established companies.”