Airline companies carried a record-setting 4.3 billion passengers globally in 2018 (International Civil Aviation Association), and by 2037 that number could reach 8.2 billion (International Air Transport Association). To serve those passengers, the research firm Deloitte estimates that aircraft manufacturers will have to produce more than 36,700 aircraft in the next 20 years – and that doesn’t even include aircraft orders from regional carriers.
Aircraft companies are already ramping up their manufacturing. Production rates on Spirit AeroSystems-supported platforms like the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350 continue to increase, according to Eric Hein, senior director of research and technology at Spirit AeroSystems. This puts pressure on the composites industry, since aircraft manufacturers have been steadily increasing the percentage of composites used in their planes. The airframe for the Boeing 787, for example, is made from 50 percent advanced composite materials.
“Increased production rate capabilities for composite structures are important to commercial aerospace because the demand for composite aircraft structures continues to grow,” Hein says. “Composites offer many great advantages when compared to metals. These include weight, tailorability, automation opportunities and service performance.”
Composite materials in today’s aircraft are used primarily for nacelles, streamlined housings or tanks that hold engines, fuel or other equipment. “However, future clean-sheet single aisle fuselage structures are likely to contain significant composite content,” Hein adds.
A greater use of composites would help reduce the weight of these new designs, an important consideration for carriers that want to reduce their planes’ carbon footprints. But there are economic factors at play as well.
“Increased speed and volume [in composites manufacturing] result in lower costs due to economies of scale and faster time to market,” says John Geriguis, innovation leader for General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. (GA-ASI). The use of composites also meets customers’ demand for lower cost of ownership, not just the initial cost of the aircraft.
“Fuel usage, maintenance, reliability and availability of aircraft play a big role in the total cost. Designing and building producible, lighter weight, unitized composite structures to lower initial cost, maintenance cost and fuel consumption is paramount,” Geriguis adds.
New urban air transportation services that carry people short distances will add to the demand for faster composite manufacturing technologies. Several companies, such as Uber Elevate, Joby Aviation and German-based Volocopter are working on variations of small, electric-powered aircraft that will be able to travel as far as 150 miles on a charge. These aircraft could transport commuters to and from work or take them on short hops between two cities. While some of the aircraft will be operated by pilots at first, the goal is to ultimately have them operate autonomously.
Read more: Aircraft Manufacturers Looking for Speed