Aircraft manufacturers are going to be very busy over the next two decades, and the thermoplastic composites industry is positioning itself to take full advantage of the opportunity.
By 2039, there will be 48,400 commercial aircraft flying throughout the world – 22,500 more than there were in 2019, according to Boeing’s Commercial Market Outlook for 2020-2039. At the same time, airline companies are accelerating the replacement cycle for their older aircraft to improve the efficiency and sustainability of their fleets. Thermoplastic composites can help aerospace manufacturers meet that burgeoning demand.
Thermoplastics offer many advantages for this industry. Lightweight carbon fiber-reinforced thermoplastic (CFRTP) parts provide excellent strength and stiffness; corrosion, chemical and fatigue resistance; and durability. They often perform better than equivalent metal parts.
They’re also a sustainable material. Thermoplastic parts weigh less than corresponding metal parts, enabling airlines to reduce their fuel and carbon emissions. In addition, thermoplastic composites are recyclable, so manufacturers can melt down and reuse the materials from production scrap and end-of-life parts.
One drawback to more widespread adoption of thermoplastic aircraft parts has been production speed. Until the past decade or so, the layout, consolidation and parts formation processes used for thermoplastics were similar to those used for thermosets. That included autoclave processing, which can take hours.
Developments in both materials and manufacturing have opened avenues to faster production. Using automated equipment and out-of-autoclave processing, manufacturers are demonstrating that they can turn out higher quality thermoplastic parts at faster speeds, making them a cost-effective option for aircraft production.
Designers are also getting more comfortable with thermoplastics. In Europe especially, predictive modeling and software has increased engineers’ confidence in the material. “Once the engineering teams at OEMs and Tier 1s understand how to design and implement the material, and have confidence in the manufacturing processes, you’re able to really overcome that mental wall that says, ‘This is new. I don’t know how to design and implement thermoplastics in production programs,’” says Evan Young, head of engineering R&D at Qarbon Aerospace.
Upgrades in unidirectional tape (UDT) are one example of how the materials used in thermoplastics manufacturing have changed. “The quality of the material has improved in terms of consistency of fiber, polymer distribution and elimination of voids within the prepreg,” says David Leach, business development director at ATC Manufacturing. Material consistency is essential to rapid, large-scale production and automation.