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December 15, 2015 - Aerospace

Composites Transform Airplane Manufacturing

Airplane manufacturing has soared since the days of Sir George Cayley’s “fixed-wing flying machine” and the Wright brothers’ first fully practical airplane. Nowadays, roughly eight million people fly daily to an increased number of new destinations, according to the International Air Transport Association. Airplane designers are using composites to adapt to this ever-growing demand, the need to lower costs and societal pressures to improve the environment. As a result, they are transforming the manufacturing process.

Why Composites?

Composites are lightweight with higher strength than competing, more traditional materials. In addition to being lighter, they have low maintenance costs and emissions, improve fuel efficiency and increase passenger carrying capacity. As a result, airlines save money, improve the environment and serve more passengers when using composites. They also enable planes to be manufactured quicker using automated production, which allows designers to keep up with increased production demands without compromising on quality.

Yet the benefits to using composites in manufacturing airplanes do not stop there. Composites are resistant to a wide range of chemical agents including acid rains and salt spray. This means they have reduced maintenance and repair costs and are better suited for the elements than metals. Composites are also resilient and have a good impact tolerance. Their thermal properties act as sufficient insulators, and they do not become brittle in cold temperatures. Furthermore, composites are low in electrical conductivity and are efficient fire retardants, which make them beneficial for covering electrical parts.

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As composites are being used instead of metals to manufacture planes, designers have also turned to adhesives (as opposed to metal fasteners) in order to bond these composite structures together. Aligning with designers’ needs to produce lighter planes faster, adhesives also share a similar polymeric make-up with composites. Therefore, they are widely compatible with one another, and the industry is shifting toward using adhesives over metal fasteners when manufacturing airplanes. As cited in our previous blog, adhesives offer advantages to product manufacturing including improved product performance, quality and design. These aspects are important to airplane designers and provide further cause to use adhesives with the composite structures in planes.

Future of Composites in Airplanes

According to Composites Manufacturing, the demand for composite materials used in airplanes grew 10.7% in 2014, and the growth won’t stop there. Markets and Markets predicts the aerospace composites market will reach $4,993.1 million by 2019. Composite material consumption has increased from 5 to 6% in the 1990s and is now at more than 50% in today’s Boeing 787s and Airbus 350s. Fueling that growth is the demand for more airplanes to be made as more people continue to fly and to new destinations. Currently, there has been a backlog of airplane orders for Boeing 737s and Airbus 320s in particular; since composites increase production speeds, it is certain more quantities will be needed to fulfill these orders and meet the demand. Furthermore, the need for continually improved low fuel efficiency, increased passenger carrying capacity, low emissions and low maintenance costs will continue to drive composite growth in the market going forward.

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Another predicted future trend in composites for airplanes is a shift away from archaic fiberglass to more advanced carbon laminate and carbon sandwich composites, as initiated in Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner. This aircraft is the first commercial plane in which major structural elements are made of composite materials instead of aluminum alloys, a trend likely to be improved and continued as growth and demand rise.

Yet the future of composites in airplane manufacturing is not just about rising growth and demand. As more composites and adhesives are used, governmental regulations on chemicals in the aerospace market have become stricter and likely will continue along this path. These regulations are to ensure alternatives for hazardous materials in airplane manufacturing and operating the aircraft are found. Currently, Boeing is leading industry efforts to find replacements for halon, a liquefied, compressed gas that stops the spread of fire by chemically disrupting combustion. As chemical regulations grow, efforts to improve and find alternatives to manufacturing composites will as well.

Stay tuned for Bostik’s upcoming post about the types of adhesives used in airplane manufacturing. For more information about composites in the aerospace market, contact Bostik’s National Sales Manager Greg Kassabian at gregory.kassabian@bostik-us.com. You can also visit www.bostik-aerospace.com.

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