How can more mainstream adoption of composites occur?
The military aerospace industry has been willing to invest in composite materials because of the weight savings in certain applications like wing skins, where we can justify the significant cost premium for composite materials to save weight and improve performance. The commercial aerospace business is certainly growing its use of composites as evidenced by the Boeing 787 and Airbus A380 programs; however, widespread use in commercial aircraft depends on how well cost savings can be realized since they are not willing to pay as much for weight savings as is the high performance military sector.
What do you look for in a supply chain partner?
For composites manufacturing the keys are facilities, experience and cost, as well as current and past performance. We are actively developing domestic and international sources of composite materials and are transferring technologies approved by the U.S. government as needed to companies meeting our basic requirements. They must be willing to work with us to develop a robust, low cost supply chain.
What advice would you give to a composites manufacturer trying to break into the aerospace industry?
First, anyone entering the business must realize that it is difficult because of the capital and technical knowledge required, along with tolerances and inspection criteria. However, partnering with a prime contractor is probably the best approach. It may also take several years to qualify a new supplier to make parts for the aerospace business because of the stringent requirements, but this is a perfect time as military and commercial programs search for new sources.
Are there inherent properties that limit composite usage?
The relative cost of graphite composite raw materials versus aluminum (especially high performance materials for advanced fighters), the high capital cost for processing and inspection equipment do limit composite usage in aerospace applications. Although composites have good properties for skin-like applications on wings, empennage, etc., (strength and stiffness in two directions), the inherent weakness in the third direction limits composite application in understructure, where the isotropic properties of metallics are welcome. Overcoming these weaknesses is the key to increased applications in all industries.