Composites : The Largest Shift in Commercial
Aircraft Technology in
Composites : The Largest Shift in
Commercial Aircraft Technology
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.
(Photo © Hugues Dumont)
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?
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.
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.
do we find mostly composites? In car industry, in building ships or aircrafts
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
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
Wing at Broughton (UK) Airbus © Photo
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.
What's the advantage in using composites? Are they really more resistant than
steel or aluminium for instance?
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.
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.
Boeing 787 Dreamliner.
Boeing © Photo
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.
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
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...
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
Question: If we
compare composites to steel or aluminium for instance, what advantage does it
bring to use them instead?
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.
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
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?
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
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.
another material going increasingly into these new aircraft, Titanium, can save
considerable weight versus aluminium, even more than composites in some
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.
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
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?
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
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...
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?
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.
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
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.
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Bets the House on Its 787 Dreamliner" by Leslie Wayne in The New York
Times, May 7, 2006.
Boeing of Asia" in Newsweek, May 15-22- issue.