The near future will bring both challenges and opportunities for composites in automotive applications. Headwinds, including a relatively flat global production outlook and a decline in regulatory drivers for lightweight materials in North America, will present obstacles to growth. There will be continued demand for lightweight automotive materials, and suppliers of composite materials that can demonstrate cost-effective performance versus aluminum and other alternatives can position themselves to win new applications in a difficult environment.

The Aerospace Market

By Waruna Seneviratine, ATLAS Director

National Institute for Aviation Research at Wichita State University

The aerospace industry remains one of the primary users of composite materials. In 2018, aerospace and defense accounted for nearly 50% of revenue shares in the carbon fiber market – nearly as much as automotive, alternative energy, construction, infrastructure and sporting goods combined, according to a report by Morder Intelligence, a market intelligence and advisory firm. The report adds that the increased use of carbon fiber in aircraft, coupled with the rising number of aircraft launched in the market each year, is expected to provide a huge growth opportunity for the carbon fiber market between 2019 and 2024.

Last year, Boeing released its Commercial Market Outlook 2019-2038 report, which supports Morder Intelligence’s assertion about the increase in aircraft deliveries. According to Boeing, the air travel market is projected to be 2.5 times larger in 20 years. To accommodate such growth, the global commercial jet fleet will double in size by 2038, with the production and delivery of more than 44,000 jets. In addition, Boeing’s report suggests that more than 75% of the existing fleet will need to be replaced during the next 20 years – almost 19,000 jets.

In order to meet aggressive demand in aerospace, the composites industry needs to consider more than material development and supply: Manufacturing processes must undergo significant technology advancements, and future engineers must be equipped with advanced hybrid, scalable, flexible and extensible tools to adapt to growing complexities. Global aircraft manufacturers are actively seeking methods for advancing manufacturing technologies through automation and innovative materials/processes that increase manufacturing rates and efficiency. They have an eye toward the “Factory of the Future” – also known as Industry 4.0 or smart manufacturing – where information technology and operational technology unite.

With the advancement of sensor technologies and manipulators, industrial robots are now capable of performing non-routine complex functions, such as labor-intensive advanced composite lay-up that typically require meticulous, trained technicians. Rapid tooling concepts with additive manufacturing technologies, coupled with automated fiber placement (AFP), have the potential to significantly decrease lead time and increase material yield and production rates due to fewer interruptions and improved consistency. With the use of advanced sensors, process simulation software and in-process inspection systems, labor-intensive non-destructive inspection for quality assurance can be automated to minimize interruptions and significantly improve part quality. In-process inspection systems equipped with advanced sensors can be deployed for automatically identifying manufacturing defects and feeding digital information into machine learning algorithms to take corrective actions on subsequent manufacturing runs to improve part quality. This approach, which develops a digital manufacturing twin for supporting sustainment activities, fits well into the Factory of the Future concept and will aid in increasing production rates of commercial and defense aircraft.