I think we are at a tipping point in the nation’s industrial base capability for composites. There are some perceptions that we are falling behind especially in Europe. One of the most important issues we are concerned with is the future workforce and skills that workers have coming from universities. We can’t solve this problem on our own, so we work very closely and combine resources with other agencies, such as the Department of Defense, to encourage manufacturing R&D.
What would you suggest to rectify that problem?
Focus on the workforce and programs to improve STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). If we can do more in education and within academia to get those students in undergraduate and graduate programs to work in this area, when they enter the work force they will utilize composites more because they have the experience. My kids are more adept at using iPhones and laptops than I am, and it’s the same with composites. We have to make composites mainstream.
What performance properties would you like to see improved in composites materials?
When we talk about large scale composite structures, which are of primary importance to us, it is the issue of manufacturability. We are now looking at 10-meter sized sections of structure and we need to see the materials and processes improved. One problem is the time it takes to manufacture. Because it takes a great deal of time to apply layer after layer, that affects cost and performance.
In general we need to continually enhance our abilities in analysis, design, materials, manufacturing, test, and verification. One key area from a very technical engineering viewpoint is that we need to work on improving performance and understanding of damage tolerance, fracture, and fatigue.
What do you see as the composites industry’s greatest weakness?
I would have to go back to the culture and experience issues; it’s a road block in composites adaptation. Before the use of composites as a primary airframe in Boeing, composites were only used as a secondary structure. Part of that is what we at NASA are dealing with, which is a lack of composites knowledge and experience.
How do composite applications and products differ in aviation and aerospace products?
One of the primary differences is the life cycle of the components. For example, the structure of commercial airplanes has a life cycle in the 100,000 range. But in space, that is not the case. Our launch vehicles may be used only once. Also, in regards to manufacturing, the aviation production rate is much higher; they are in the thousands whereas we might produce four to six vehicles a year.