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Composites : The Largest Shift <span lang="EN-GB">in </span>C<span lang="EN-GB">ommercial </span>A<span lang="EN-GB">ircraft </span>T<span lang="EN-GB">echnology in </span>D<span lang="EN-GB">ecades

Composites : The Largest Shift in Commercial Aircraft Technology in Decades

Interview of Mr Steve Loud, Editor of Advanced Materials & Composites News in San Diego, California, May 14, 2006 © Joël-François Dumont.

Joël-François Dumont : Thanks Mr Loud for granting us this interview in San Diego. Mr Loud, you are the Editor of this San Diego-based newsletter called Advanced Materials & Composites News as well as Composites eNews. Could you please introduce us to these publications and explain what they aim to present.

Steve Loud (Photo © Hugues Dumont). San Diego, May 14, 2006.

Steve Loud (Photo © Hugues Dumont)

Steve Loud: Yes, I work for Composites Worldwide Inc., and its Composites News International division in Solana Beach, California. We publish two newsletters, one print by paid subscription and one electronic free weekly with the contents being vastly different. Also, beyond new reporting and Market Research, I am very active in Composites organizations - ACMA ­ the American Composites Manufacturers Association; JEC Composites – A trade organization that holds the largest composites chow in the World in Paris every spring (2); and SAMPE – the Society for the Advancement of Material and Process Engineering (3) – in which I am "fellow". So I have broad and deep perspective on many areas of composites, but I am always willing and trying to learn more.

Question: As of today, how do you explain on the one hand the extensive use of composites, and on the other, that so few articles are related to them?

Steve Loud: Primarily because high-performance composites in general are a niche technology involving carbon-fiber and even those involving glass-fibber are not yet considered by many to be Commodity Market.

When you compare to other materials, like steel, aluminium, timber, engineering plastics or concrete, composites are a fairly small tonnage technology, but they have enormous enabling leverage on applications in every market.

Question: Where do we find mostly composites? In car industry, in building ships or aircrafts for instance?

Steve Loud: Probably the areas the consumer would most recognize would be fiber-glass boats, carbon-fiber golf clubs and tennis racquets... They are very popular products with consumers. Many consumers have them but most of the composites technology goes into more engineering applications that are embedded in the final product, so that typically you do not see the composites and the role they play.

Airbus A380 at Le Bourget Airshow 2005 - Photo © Joël-François Dumont.

Airbus A380 at Le Bourget Airshow 2005

Question:  I am sure Mr Loud, you have read the article about Boeing in the New York Times (4) last week-end and the latest issue of Newsweek (5) as well. We also learned that Airbus Industry succeeded in securing titanium for the next fifteen years. How much can one foresee Mr Loud such use of composite in the coming future?

A380 Wing at Broughton (UK) Airbus © Photo.

A380 Wing at Broughton (UK) Airbus © Photo

Steve Loud: Well, the forecasts are very difficult today for carbon fiber in aviation because the aircraft is particularly evolving in design. But Boeing has said that fifty per cent of the structural weight of the 787 will be carbon-fiber composite or glass-fiber composite and Airbus says about 35% at the moment for its A350 and 28% for its Jumbo A340. Each aircraft company is using different design strategy. Boeing has both a carbon-fiber wing and a carbon-fiber fuselage while Airbus has picked a carbon-fiber wing and an aluminium alloy fuselage for their new generation A350. While their A340 has largely composite wings, but an aluminium fuselage, with two sections of the upper crown being a new hybrid composite called glare glass-fiber and epoxy prepreg and aluminium sheet in multiple layers. Coincidentally, the glare is reinforced with S-2 glass fiber, a product launched by a teal I lead in the 1970s.

Question: What's the advantage in using composites? Are they really more resistant than steel or aluminium for instance?

Steve Loud: Right away, it is the primary driver because of fuel economy, but Boeing uses the composites for marketing purposes based on the enhanced corrosion resistance that allows higher humidity in the aircraft. I think the numbers are typically 10% humidity level in the cabin when you fly.

Using composites for the fuselage can take this level up to 20 or 30% with a carbon-fiber fuselage, which adds much greater comfort for the passenger.

The Boeing 787 Dreamliner, scheduled for delivery beginning of 2008. Boeing © Photo.

The Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Boeing © Photo

Another advantage is that composites can take more pressure cycles and resist fatigue much better than aluminium. And as a result, while at 10,500 meters the 787 can fly at an "effective altitude" of 1800 meters instead of today's 2400 meters used with metal fuselages, which again is far more comfortable for the passenger. And so composites are enabling technologies that leapfrogs what aluminium can do.

When the planes today fly at 10,500 meters the "effective altitude" felt by the passengers is set at 2400 meters. But, with the new 787, that effective altitude can be lowered to feel like you are flying at 1800 meters, which provides much more comfort for the passengers.

And aircraft operators can raise the humidity level from about 10% up to 30% because the hull is CFRP composites instead of aluminium which corrodes, so more comfort is gained. Boeing says that because of the enabling benefits of CFRP (Carbon-Fiber Reinforced Polymer) composites, the passengers on a 787 will arrive more refreshed and less fatigued from the same flight today in metal aircraft.

And one more, composites allow a different sidewall design so that the windows can be 30% larger, for a much better view.

Question:  Do you believe there are enough raw materials to produce composites in the World, now that they are used in so many different products. Trains, cars, aircrafts, sports and more...

Steve Loud: Well, right now there is a global shortage of carbon-fiber but every major producer from Western and Eastern Europe to Japan to the United States has announced major capacity increases planned for 2006 and for the next four years, so I firmly believe there will be enough carbon-fiber in the near future. The length of the shortage really depends on plans for aircraft production as they scale up their aircraft builds along with the conversion to composites in the other markets such as wind turbines, offshore oil and gas, automotive, and other emerging markets.

Question: If we compare composites to steel or aluminium for instance, what advantage does it bring to use them instead?

Laser beam welding facility in Nordenham (UK) - Airbus © Photo.

Laser beam welding facility in Nordenham (UK) - Airbus © Photo

Steve Loud: The major resistance to change is change itself, number one, and the relative cost, number two. Composites frequently are perceived as more expensive, but with the benefits they provide and improved durability and life cycle cost savings, in fact, they frequently are the less expensive option.

Composites materials are a premium material in cost per kilogram. They can cost several times what steel or other commodity materials may cost. But composites are sold best when the cost per euro of modulus or of tensile strength versus the other materials.

And as I mentioned before, the advantages rest with composites in corrosion and fatigue resistance. So, for the designers, it's a trade off on design and use and cost as to where the optimum benefit is.

The question for the designer, builder, and mainly the customer is: Are you willing to pay a premium to get many new benefits?

Question:  Now Mr Loud that the production of large numbers of planes is envisaged by companies like Boeing or Airbus using composites in both their fuselage, wings or tails for instance, parts which are then to be built in different countries (4), be that Japan, Europe or the US, how can it work to assemble all these. Second, another consequence of this globalized market, most of the suppliers are the same for these two companies. About 50% of an aircraft being built nowadays is in various countries. How do you imagine that future if we envisage large numbers of planes, thousands of them for instance?

Steve Loud: The technology has globalized greatly in composites over the last few years which has enabled many new or distant producers to compete for and supply programs like Airbus and Boeing or the military. Lockheed-Martin emphasizes their global team for fighter-aircraft for example, as does Boeing for 787 and Airbus for its planes. Now we have Italy, Russia, China, Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Australia, and many other countries entering the supply chain. Some of this is for offset purposes, and some of it is to aid the marketing effort to sell planes to those countries, and much of it is to get the best technology most affordably.

As far as units ­ most of these companies can do hundreds of units of structures today, but they are not set to do thousands of units per year today, except perhaps in the missile industry, where composites are used by the thousands of small pieces for components.

So, the technology can do it. It is really a question of the economic and performance trade offs, and each application for each system has to do a trade study to determine what the most cost-effective solution is on unit volumes.

And, keep in mind that all of the rest of the large aircraft will likely follow this material shift. Replacement must come some day for the A3220, A330, A340, 737, 777, even 747. Now that will take a lot of carbon-fiber composites. We are just beginning a major paradigm shift from metal to composites here.

Don't forget another material going increasingly into these new aircraft, Titanium, can save considerable weight versus aluminium, even more than composites in some applications.

Question: About ten percent?

Steve Loud: Boeing is targeting the 787 to save 20 or 22% on fuel. But that's a combination of aerodynamics, A lighter hull and vastly improved engines (that also use composites in their fan-blades and nacelles, and so each contributes a significant portion of that fuel economy gain.

Composites, because they allow lighter weight, add the fuel economy but more importantly they add to payload and they add the range, when we are talking aircraft. And when we're talking ships, they add great cost-corrosion resistance plus provide stealth characteristics. There are many benefits tow which each system has to adapt, which benefits the designer and operator wants and is willing to pay for.

There is a lot to consider. Composites come in many varieties, with many kinds of fibers, many kinds of plastic resins, fillers, core materials, and other items. Each material is tailored for the application and we are really talking a "system" of materials that does the job

Question: Some countries, let us say China to take an example, agree to buy such high technologies such as planes, but they ask for technology transfers. Is there not a danger that the client today becomes at the end the one that sells tomorrow? As far as composites are concerned, a region like Asia could see its industry boosted in the near future?

Steve Loud: Absolutely. In the case of Japan, Boeing has delegated the wing construction to Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which is the first time Boeing has ever had anybody build wings for them, and this time they are doing it with the leading technology, carbon-fiber composites. So that's a major transfer. In the case of China or Indonesia or Australia or Malaysia, there is a transfer for secondary composite parts, like control surfaces, flaps and so on. And some extension of other components.

There is some reluctance to transfer the "family jewels". You don't want to transfer your best technology because then the customer can take the business away from you at some point in the future. But if there are true team mates, you do delegate to them. It's has been done in metallic aircraft for years, 777, even 747, where there is a lot of Japanese assembled structures content. In the case of other commercial aircraft, China gets increased business. And this will continue. It is used as a tool to maximize sales potential with that target country. I guess it is felt that the risks of technology are worth it...

Question: When we consider companies such as Embraer in Brazil or Bombardier in Canada, doing their best to become new suppliers in the world market, can we imagine that such new coming companies could become concurrent tomorrow with Airbus or Boeing?

Steve Loud: When you are talking commuter or short-range regional aircraft which Embraer or Bombardier make, they still produce mainly metallic aircraft. They will have to look at composite aircrafts. They have good composite technology, both companies, or can obtain it at their team mates should they elect to make this switch from metal to composites in a much greater way than just the secondary structures they use today.

There is just a general trend in aviation, commercial or military, toward more and more composites content. And I think those companies, those types of commuter aircraft companies will follow ­ it may take ten or twenty years ­ but, it will happen.

Question: Could we say that these companies we just mentioned could become concurrent tomorrow and still do part of the job for much bigger companies?

Steve Loud: Oh, absolutely. They could elect to pursue structures fabrication for the big OEMs too. And there is another big driver for doing this and that is, as you give a partner country or a team mate company a share of the business, that's an incentive for that country to buy aircraft supplied by that prime.

  • This is the largest shift in commercial aircraft technology in decades.

I am most optimistic about the changes and glad to see it after spending several decades myself in marketing composites into many markets, and now reporting and doing market research about carbon and glass-fiber composites...

Joël-François Dumont : Mr. Loud, I thank you very much for this interview.

(1) Composites News, 991-C Lomas Santa Fe Dr -- PMB469, Solana Beach, California 92075-2141 -- Tel: +1.858.755.1372 - Fax: +1.858.755.5271-- eMail: info@compositesnews.com -- Website: http://www.compositesnews.com

(2) The JEC Show 2006 Report (visitors and exhibitors) is now available. With the table of content, Exhibitors survey, visitors survey, special events, press report, JEC Magazine / JEC Publications, website, and next session. Download it here in English or French.

 (3) SAMPE-USA, SAMPE-Europe, SAMPE-France, SAMPE-Japan, SAMPE-Germany, SAMPE-Switzerland. Next JEC Composites Show 2007 should take place in Paris Expo, Porte de Versailles, Hall 1, from April 3 to April 5. JEC Composites, 19 Boulevards de Courcelles, 75008 Paris, France (331-58.36.15.01).

(4)  "Boeing Bets the House on Its 787 Dreamliner" by Leslie Wayne in The New York Times, May 7, 2006.

(5) "A Boeing of Asia" in Newsweek, May 15-22- issue.


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Directeur de la publication : Joël-François Dumont
Comité de rédaction : Jacques de Lestapis, Hugues Dumont, François de Vries (Bruxelles), Hans-Ulrich Helfer (Suisse), Michael Hellerforth (Allemagne).
Comité militaire : VAE Guy Labouérie (†), GAA François Mermet (2S), CF Patrice Théry (Asie).

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