“As everybody’s understanding of this material continues to develop, we’re trying to find the best way of using this material to achieve goals,” Hills says. “That’s not just in terms of how strong these components are, but also how [composites] fit into the total process of manufacturing, in terms of cost and maintaining these things out in the field.” As Hills points out, repairing a damaged composite panel is not the same as repairing a metallic panel. Research is underway in this area to speed the repair process, often done by hand, and explore ways to replace heavy metal or pre-cured composite patches with a bonded patch that keeps weight to a minimum, among other activities.

“There’s an awful lot of learning, and that shapes your view of how to use this material intelligently,” Hills adds. “And a lot of lessons are learned when you try to produce these big structures very quickly.”

Addressing Production Time Demands

The complete time to manufacture components is one of the biggest drivers of Airbus’ current manufacturing research, Hills says. “Associated with that is the cost of materials and the total cost of the production of those components,” he adds.

A350-1000_fuel_test_campaign_in_UK

Airbus test engineers fuel the A350-1000 at Cardiff International Airport as part of this aircraft’s fuel test campaign in the UK. The use of lightweight carbon fiber components in more than 50 percent of its makeup help the aircraft achieve a 25 percent improvement in fuel efficiency compared to its nearest competitor, according to the company.
Photo Credit: © Polly Thomas

One area where researchers are seeking to speed processes is by developing new strategies for improving manufacturing repeatability. “All parts of the composite process are very heavily controlled and confined, but even so there’s probably greater variability than we would prefer,” Hills says.

As Hills explains: “Basically, you do all the testing on a given material in a given environment, and you look at the spread of the results you get. The tighter the spread, the closer you’re able to get to the full potential of the material. If in the [fabrication] process you get a broader spread than you’d like, then … you can’t guarantee you’ll always hit exactly the optimal properties of that material that, as a system combination, it should be able to deliver.”

Aircraft face extremely tight tolerances, far more so than automotive manufacturing for example, and variations can impact the overall aircraft performance. In addition, these levels of variation can lead to higher than typical levels of post-build diagnostics and inspections, which leads to increased manufacturing costs.