Last December, the Materials and Manufacturing Directorate of the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL/RX) celebrated its 100th anniversary. Based at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio near Dayton, AFRL/RX develops materials, processes and advanced manufacturing technologies for aircraft, spacecraft, missiles, rockets and ground-based systems.
Through the years, AFRL/RX has made significant contributions to the composites industry, beginning with ground-breaking research on carbon fiber in the 1960s. It has spent decades studying micromechanics to better understand the behavior of composites at the global and local level: How do composite materials behave, and how can engineers properly design structures from FRP?
In the 1990s, AFRL/RX began researching how to industrialize composites, moving from hand lay-up to autoclave manufacturing. Meanwhile, the Materials and Manufacturing Directorate recognized that the high cost of composites compared to metals was a barrier, so it launched the Composites Affordability Initiative in 1996 to make composites more affordable and more widely used. That led to advances in vacuum-assisted resin transfer molding (VARTM), adhesively-bonded structures, non-destructive inspection and other areas.
In recognition of the anniversary and achievements of AFRL/RX, Composites Manufacturing magazine talked to John D. Russell about the continuing role of composites in AFRL/RX’s mission. Russell is the technical director of the Manufacturing and Industrial Technologies Division of AFRL/RX.
Q: What major composites innovations has AFRL/RX been working on recently?
A: In the last few years, we’ve been dabbling with out-of-autoclave because the autoclave can be a factory choke point. We have conceived of some aircraft parts that may be bigger than the biggest autoclaves out there. And as autoclaves get larger, the cost goes up exponentially. So we’ve been looking into how to widen the footprint of our industrial base by going out of the autoclave.
Q: What challenges does the Air Force face in the future that will likely require a composite solution?
A: The Air Force has been very sensitive to the price of jet fuel since about the 2000s. It’s not like your car, where you pull up to the pump, see the price on the sign and pay that price. Our gas is delivered by a tanker, so the cost to deliver is that much more. Our transport fleet – our C-17s and C-5s – use a lot of gas. So as we look toward future airplanes, no matter what kind – from a fighter to a transport – composites will play a big part because of the Air Force’s requirements for range, speed and payload capability. We need to have a lightweight structure, and that means composites are going to be a part of the answer.