As more composite materials find a place on aircraft, boats, bridges and hundreds of other applications where part replacement is both difficult and expensive, OEM engineers are considering the repairability of structural and secondary composite components during the initial design phase of a project.
According to a recent report by Aerostrategy Management Consulting (Ann Arbor, Mich. and Amersham, Buckinghamshire, U.K.), spending by air transport maintenance and repair organizations (MROs) on maintenance materials is likely to increase to $20 billion (USD) by 2011. Today, composite repair materials account for a fraction of that: $15 million to $25 million annually. When The Boeing Co.’s (Seattle, Wash.) 787 goes into service, MROs will have to repair planes that are 50 percent composites by weight. One answer may be automated repairs. Publicly unveiled in 2005, the Inspection and Repair Preparation Cell (IRPC) concept is the result of an initiative begun in 1999 to improve aircraft repair practices and reduce repair time through automation. The ongoing work of a consortium of companies and championed by American GFM (AGFM, Chesapeake, Va.), a member of the GFM machine tool organization headquartered in Steyr, Austria), the IRPC is designed to integrate into a single, automated work cell a variety of tasks regularly performed manually by MROs (See "Learn More," at right). An IRPC cell, as currently conceived, will include a 3-D digitizing station, nondestructive testing (NDT) capability, radio frequency identification (RFID) tagging, automated machining equipment (to remove damage and cut out repair plies and core plugs) and advanced in-cell collision avoidance technologies.
Other composite components that require repair include heavy truck front ends and other automotive and marine products. Whether damage is minor or extensive, training and specific repair materials are available. A number of materials suppliers provide kits that contain low- or room-temperature curing adhesives and potting compounds formulated especially for onsite repair, along with low-quantity dry fiber or prepreg and vacuum-bagging materials. At least a dozen private training companies nationally offer from 1- to 10-day courses in composite repair.
Composites are increasingly being used to repair structures built with other materials, such as bridge beams, bridge decks, parking garages and pipelines, including underground systems. A number of specialty contractors, such as Structural Preservation Systems (Hanover, Md.) and Fyfe Co. LLC (San Diego, Calif.) use composite fabrics and precured reinforcement strips to add load capacity and strength to concrete floors and beams. Composites also can be used to repair product pipelines, such as natural gas and petroleum pipes at oil refineries and offshore platforms.