Composite innovation centers seek to address production challenges and explore new material combinations.

In many areas, the aerospace design and manufacturing industry – with its tight tolerances and sizable demands for new production equipment and processes – sets process and technology standards that other industries strive to reach. It has led the development of virtual design tools now being used to simulate automobile performance. It sets the pace for machinery development, such as setting new limits in autoclave size that have since been put to use in creating previously unheard of sizes for all-glass façades.

And yet in other areas aerospace has moved slowly. Case in point: aluminum and other metals have been a core part of most commercial aircraft since the beginning.

You might say that the Wright brothers understood the challenges aerospace designers face today – balancing light, efficient frames with high material costs. The high costs of aluminum meant that the Wright Flyer was a balance of wood types, covered with canvas, with sparing use of aluminum. But since the German aircraft designer Hugo Junkers launched the first full metal aircraft in 1915, aluminum has dominated as the primary material in many aerospace applications.

Since the 1980s, composites have had a role to play in aircraft, in applications ranging from the fuselage to the tailplane. But now carbon fiber blends are poised to play a bigger role than ever. The wings of Airbus’ innovative new A350 series, made up of more than 50 percent CFRP, is testament to the growth expected in use of this material.

The reasoning is clear. As Carl Holt, aerospace and composites marketing manager for Huntsman Advanced Materials says on the company website, “Every pound on a plane – from passengers and luggage to airplane parts – equates to about $10,000 in fuel costs every year. If you can reduce the weight of the airplane, you will reduce your fuel needs and lower operating costs.”

But the addition of carbon fiber materials has largely followed processes put in place decades ago for manufacturing aluminum-based aircraft. “The design principles and methodologies adapted for composite material look and feel very much like the metallic equivalents,” says David Hills, vice president research and technology, Airbus Americas in Herndon, Va.

Today, that is set to change as manufacturers like Airbus and Boeing have launched research centers dedicated to exploring the potential of using composite materials in aerospace design through a complete rethinking of aircraft manufacturing.