For decades, aerospace manufacturers have been incorporating composite components into their aircraft to cut back on weight, save on fuel and reduce the environmental impact of commercial, business and military flights. With the development of new technologies, composite materials will play an even bigger role in the aircraft of the future.

The work on composites for aerospace is continuing on many fronts, three of which are highlighted in this article. At a new technology hub in England, aerospace engine manufacturer Rolls-Royce is showcasing automated production of composite fan components. In Wichita, Kan., Spirit AeroSystems is finding ways to improve the properties and production of composite materials designed for hypersonic flight. And in Florida, university researchers have significantly increased the strength of 3D-printed composite materials, making them better candidates for structural components of aircraft.

New Methods of Production

More sustainable, more automated production of composite materials could lead to their increased use in the aerospace industry. Rolls-Royce’s new composite technology hub in Bristol, England, provides a possible model for future manufacturing. Opened in January 2020, the facility is manufacturing CFRP fan blades and fan cases for demonstrator models of Rolls-Royce’s innovative UltraFan® engine. The UltraFan represents the first big architectural change in Rolls-Royce’s aircraft engines in several decades.

“UltraFan brings together a whole series of new technologies that combine the propulsive efficiency benefit of a large, low-speed fan driven through a power gearbox with a high-technology, high-speed and very power-dense, gas generator core,” says Andy Geer, chief engineer, UltraFan product development and technology at Rolls-Royce. This enables both fuel burn reduction and emissions reduction. “From a cost point of view and an environmental footprint point of view that is very much where the future of aerospace is pointed,” says Geer.

The company estimates that the incorporation of composite fan blades and fan cases will reduce the weight of the jet engine by more than 1,500 pounds, the equivalent of seven passengers. Overall, UltraFan will deliver a 25% reduction in fuel burn and CO2 emissions compared to Rolls-Royce’s first Trent engine family member.

Rolls-Royce partnered with the United Kingdom’s National Composites Centre on the development of UltraFan’s composite fan components. The initial work was done at the company’s academic-style research facility on the Isle of Wight. The next stage will happen at the composite technology hub, a pre-production facility that features state-of-the-art, automated manufacturing methods. The building is powered primarily by solar power and designed for sustainability with low-energy, very-low-emissions manufacturing processes.