It’s a challenge the research team seeks to address across the board, in all of the varying manufacturing processes. “If you look at all aircraft components, we use probably every possible composite process that you can think of,” Hills says. “We’re either using a matte or winding the carbon fiber around a particular shape. In order to do that, of course, you need to know things like exactly how those mattes or fibers actually lay in terms of the uniformity of how they’re distributed. There’s a lot of different elements of that process that go to give you perfectly aligned and [evenly] distributed set of fibers. You want that degree of repeatability.”
Rapidly achieving a degree of repeatability that meets the extreme tolerances of aircraft manufacturing is the challenge that companies like Airbus are posing to equipment manufacturers.
Hills points out, “If you use an autoclave, how uniform is the heat distribution with respect to these parts? You can cook and cook and cook, which will distribute [well], but at the end of the day it all takes time and time is money.” Reducing time, and costs, is key to broader use of composite components.
Hills acknowledges, “That puts an awful lot of constraint on the systems manufacturers, the people who put together the fibers and resin systems or the machines that allow you to wind or lay those systems into shapes.” But while Hills is close-lipped about the specific manufacturing areas where Airbus is pushing equipment manufacturers, the implication is that research and development is currently underway in the aerospace industry that has the potential to broaden use of composites across a number of industries where production time has previously posed problems.
Airbus Innovation Areas
Given the multitude of challenges that need to be addressed by aerospace designers and manufacturers, companies like Airbus and Boeing have formed partnerships with a range of component fabricators, as well as universities and research groups around the world.
Among other partnerships, Airbus is working closely with the University of Dayton Research Institute (UDRI) in Ohio to explore ways to enhance the basic carbon fiber-resin system through the addition of various forms of nanoparticles. One area that UDRI researchers are exploring is the potential for adding nanomaterials to enhance composite components to address issues such as “the lightning strike problem,” Hills says.