Composite Automation has done some prototype programs with the fiber patch placement, and European aerospace companies Safran and Premium Aerotec are doing some development work with it as well.
Industry-wide cooperative efforts, including the sharing of data about new manufacturing technologies, will help speed development of the next generation of composite aircraft components. “In general, these improvements must be developed aggressively, which requires commitment and engagement from industry and partners,” Hein says.
In the United Kingdom, Spirit AeroSystems is partnering with the University of Strathclyde and other organizations on this research. “U.K. Catapult centers allow industry partners, like Spirit AeroSystems, to experiment on next-generation equipment much sooner than would typically be possible through internal funding,” he adds. Established by UK Innovate, the United Kingdom’s innovation agency, Catapult centers are a network of not-for-profit centers designed to spur innovation in a variety of industries.
Another example of the cooperative approach is the Thermoplastic Composites Research Center (TPRC) in the Netherlands. The members of this consortium believe that thermoplastic composites are the best choice of material for lightweight manufacturing in large volumes, and they work together to eliminate technological barriers to its adoption.
Melilli says NASA is proposing a similar thermoplastic consolidation institute in the U.S. But whether or not this becomes a reality, there’s little doubt that manufacturers in this country will soon be trying some new approaches to aircraft parts production. Geriguis predicts that in the next three to five years, aerospace leaders like NASA, Airbus, Boeing and General Atomics and manufacturers like Fokker GKN and Spirit will adopt the new concepts of thermoplastic consolidation and that within a decade it will become one of the methods routinely employed for composites manufacturing.
Hein sees some challenges, however. While many of the new composites technologies will be ready for incorporation into manufacturing in the next five years, the nature of the aircraft industry could delay their implementation. “Some of the technologies will require capitalization, material qualification or even changes to engineering, which are costs that are hard to justify on an existing program,” he explains. “In those cases, the implementation will need to be coordinated with new product launches, which aren’t as frequent in aerospace as in some other industries. At the same time, this drives a need to have the technologies ready earlier for when an implementation opportunity presents itself.”
Improved technologies will speed the adoption of composites by the aircraft industry. “There has already been a major increase in composite utilization in aerospace that has coincided with the productivity increases that have been incorporated over the last 20-plus years,” Hein continues. As the cost and cycle times improve even further, composite material will likely assume an even larger role in future aircraft products.