In the aircraft industry, composites are becoming a standard material in aircraft construction. At Boeing in the 1960’s, only a small part of the aircrafts’ bodies were made from composites. Fast forward to today, composites can be found in half of any plane’s construction.
So, what makes composites a better material to use, and what challenges do composites present when this material is used?
More flexibility in design
In composites, carbon fibre is added to plastics to form a a stronger building material. Traditionally, metal is used in the construction of aircrafts because of its strength. However, composites is lighter and just as strong as metal. As a result, the aircraft constructed from composites is still able to bear its own weight and tolerate the demands of flight.
For engineers and designers, they are always looking for ways to maximize aerodynamics, fuel efficiency, and minimize noise generated by the engines. Using composites has offered them new possibilities. For instance, in improving fuel usage, sweeping wing tips on planes are able to be manufactured.
Also, composites allow for the construction of a large plane part in smaller sections. Parts can constructed in various sizes and shapes, then assembled together. This improves the plane’s structural integrity as well as cut down construction time.
Better for the environment and for the budget
Using composites have two important benefits for the aircraft manufacturer as well as for society as a whole.
For the manufacturer, if the planes are more efficient, that means savings in costs. Lighter planes are more aerodynamic and require less fuel to operate. Fuel prices continue to increase year after year to extraordinary heights. If anything can be down to cut the down the expense spent on fuel, that can make a tremendous difference to a companies budget.
Cost savings can also result in other areas of business. Parts that weight less requires less cost to transport. New designs lead to savings in construction costs. Composites allow for better tooling techniques so that parts can be custom-molded inexpensively to fit the need better. For airlines and aircraft manufacturers, using composites save them money.
However, the benefits do not stop here. Composites are also good for the planet.
Aircrafts are known to contribute to air pollution because of the massive amount of fuel that they burn during flight. When a plane is lighter, it burns less fuel, thus emitting less pollution into the environment.
In addition, the use of composites allow for exploration into innovations, like aircrafts that are powered by solar energy. One such plane is the Solar Impulse, which will make its first demonstration, 25-day flight in 2015. This aircraft is constructed from composites and technologies that are environmentally friendly. This plane will be powered by solar energy. This breaks new ground in reducing cost and impact of flying in years to come.
Composite aircrafts and their challenges
Composites do present a set of challenges of their own.
Producing aircrafts from composites requires special tools. In aircraft construction, precision is crucial. Any tiny imperfections in their construction can lead to loss in efficiency. Precision is required to meet all safety standards. Therefore, it is important that designers of composite tooling and manufacturers of the aircraft work closely together in order to maximize the benefits that composites are able to contribute.
Airlines that use composite planes also face challenges. Repair crews must learn to work with a new material. In particular, Boeing has made great efforts to demonstrate that their composite planes can be repaired successfully. Minor repairs can be made by using epoxy and heat to form a new layer over the damaged one. Spare parts can be made to fit over other parts that are at risk for damage. For damage that is more extensive, a special crew with expertise in composites will be required for repair. Repairing larger parts can pose a bigger challenge.
The aircraft construction industry is moving toward composites. The benefits are clearly there, but the challenges also cannot be overlooked.
Amy Rice writes about composite aircrafts, when not writing she enjoys horse riding and playing adventure golf.