To successfully integrate traditional design and manufacturing processes with novel advanced technologies, manufacturing engineering education programs must be enhanced to prepare future engineers with the tools and applied learning experience necessary to apply scientific, mathematics and engineering principles during production. The National Institute for Aviation Research (NIAR) at Wichita State University (WSU) is one of several organizations striving to accelerate innovation by investing in industry-relevant advanced manufacturing technologies. NIAR Advanced Technology Laboratory for Aerospace Systems (ATLAS) has several strategic partnerships to encapsulate technologies for creating a digital thread that connects design and manufacturing elements to effectively integrate all aspects of the manufacturing process.

Recent advances in heating technologies and automated manufacturing technologies have enabled the use of thermoplastics in automated manufacturing processes. In-situ consolidation eliminates secondary processes, such as vacuum bagging and autoclave/oven curing, thereby significantly reducing manufacturing costs and increasing production rates. Furthermore, with highly-adaptable automated toolless manufacturing technology, robot movements are coordinated to produce 3D composite parts out-of-autoclave. This is analogous to additive manufacturing with the added enhancement of continuous fibers for structural application. With this technology, parts can be manufactured from 3D CAD drawings for rapid manufacturing with digital twin, as-built copy for supporting sustainment.

The future outlook for composites in the aerospace industry is bright, but it requires collaboration among government agencies, aircraft manufacturers, equipment suppliers, material suppliers and universities to ensure we are developing the right materials, as well as creating streamlined technologies and manufacturing processes that can meet the growing demand for aircraft.

The Chinese Market

By Ray Liang, Ph.D., Director and Chief Scientist

The i-Center for Composites

Managing Director, NSF Center for Integration of Composites into Infrastructure

China’s glass fiber and composites production has been leading the world for the past several years, with glass fiber production exceeding 60% of the world’s total output. For the past several years, the annual production capacity of glass fiber in the Chinese composites industry has exceeded 5.5 million metric tons and the annual composite shipment has been more than 4 million metric tons. However, numbers have dipped in the past couple of years. The total shipment of composite products in 2018 was 4.3 million metric tons, a decrease of 3.15% compared to 2017. This reduction continued in 2019, with the total production of composite products decreasing by 8.5% from January through September compared to 2018.

This downward trend occurred primarily because the Chinese government and composites industry have enforced several regulations on environmental protection and other industry standards since 2017, leading to the closing of a large number of composites manufacturing plants and companies. The entire Chinese composites industry is undergoing transformation in an effort to promote more innovation, higher productivity, environmentally-friendly operations, a lower waste rate, more optimized operations and more efficient management.