After three years of delays caused by supplier, manufacturing and assembly problems, The Boeing Co. (Chicago, Ill.) on Sept. 25, 2011, delivered the first 787 Dreamliner to launch customer ANA (Tokyo, Japan). Featuring a fuselage, wings, wingbox, tail and other structural components fabricated from carbon fiber/epoxy composites, the 787 is the first commercial airliner whose structure is at least 50 percent composites by weight. Boeing will now focus on ramping up the 787 production rate to meet delivery obligations to other customers. Industry analysts expect an initial 787 build rate of 2.5 planes per month. That number should increase gradually to four per month by the end of 2012. As of early November 2011, Boeing had delivered two 787s to ANA, leaving 819 more 787s still on the order books.
Boeing took the unprecedented step of outsourcing the majority of the 787 production, with the exception of the vertical tail, while coordinating the design of all the components in-house with a three-dimensional digital design program. For example, automated tape laying methods are used to fabricate the fuselage as one-piece barrels, using TORAYCA epoxy prepreg from Toray Composites America (Tacoma, Wash.), the principal composite materials supplier for the program. Initially, the majority of the composites work was performed by four partner/suppliers: Spirit AeroSystems (Wichita, Kan.), Kawasaki Heavy Industries (Toyko, Japan), Vought Aircraft Co. (Dallas, Texas) and Alenia Aeronautica (Rome, Italy). The latter is a partner with Boeing in Global Aeronautica LLC (Charlestion, S.C. (Boeing purchased Vought’s 50 percent interest in Global Aeronautica in early 2008; Vought is now part of Triumph Aerostructures, based in Berwyn, Pa.). A long list of global partner/suppliers send completed parts to Boeing’s assembly facility in Everett, Wash. Coordinating this far-flung enterprise, Boeing officials admit, proved more challenging than expected. Some 787s eventually will be assembled in Charleston, S.C.
With the 787 now in production, the glare of international attention has turned to the A350 XWB, Airbus’ (Toulouse, France) answer to the Dreamliner. Scheduled for delivery in 2013, the A350 XWB likewise features an aerostructure that is more than 50 percent composites by weight. However, the A350 fuselage — unlike the fuselage of the 787, which is made via automated fiber and tape placement over large mandrels — is fabricated in panel sections (four per barrel section) that will require secondary assembly. Further, many A350 structures are being delivered to the A350 final assembly facility in St. Nazaire, France, from other locations, which are mostly in Europe and are owned by Airbus. (Read more about the Airbus suppler network and its composite fuselage and wing components in “A350 XWB Update: Smart Manufacturing” by clicking on the title under "Editor's Pick's at top right.) Among the exceptions is GKN Aerospace (Filton, U.K.), which produces composite inboard and outboard landing flaps for the A350, as well as the rear spars and fixed trailing edge assemblies; and Spirit AeroSystems, which supplies center fuselage panels, spars and fixed leading edges from its new facility in Kinston, S.C.
Throughout the latter half of 2011, A350 suppliers began delivering first articles for assembly of the first aircraft. Among them was the 6.5m by 5.5m by 3.9m (21.3 ft by 18.0 ft by 12.8 ft) center wingbox, which is 40 percent carbon fiber composites and is manufactured in Nantes, France. The upper wingskin was delivered to the new A350 wing assembly plant in Broughton, U.K., from an Airbus plant in Stade, Germany. The lower wingskin was delivered from another facility in Illescas, Spain. These one-piece components are 32m/105 ft long by 6m/19.7 ft wide — reportedly making them the largest-ever civil aviation parts made from carbon fiber composites. Airbus partner Premium Aerotec assembled the first forward fuselage for the A350 in Nordenham, Germany. The all-composite fuselage is 13m/42.7 ft long and comprises four panels and the floor grid. Also delivered to St. Nazaire, France, was the nose section of the A350. Finally, in October 2011, Spirit AeroSystems shipped the first Section 15 fuselage panels. Also in October, Airbus began assembly of the A350 horizontal tailplane in Getafe, Spain.
Some aerospace pundits predict that the economic downturn, coupled with delays in new plane deliveries from Airbus and Boeing and the push back of new, second-generation single-aisle aircraft designs, will open the doors for regional jet manufacturers. In anticipation of such an outcome, Bombardier (Montréal, Québec, Canada) launched its new CSeries family of 100- to 149-seat single-aisle aircraft, which will be 20 percent composite, including the center and rear fuselage, tail cone, empennage and wings. Embraer (São José dos Campos, Brazil) continues production of its E-Jet family of regional aircraft, which incorporates composites in wing components, such as flaps, ailerons and spoilers. And Mitsubishi Aircraft Corp. (Tokyo, Japan) is proceeding with the final design of its new 70- to 90-seat regional jet. Launched in early 2008, the Mitsubishi MRJ was set to adopt significant structural composite components, including an out-of-autoclave empennage structure, but Mitsubishi opted in September 2009 for an aluminum wingbox instead of the anticipated composite design. The decision surprised observers because Mitsubishi produces the composite wingbox for Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner. But Mitsubishi says an aluminum wingbox will allow for a shorter lead time and provide greater freedom to make structural changes. Mitsubishi has an agreement with JAMCO Corp. (Tokyo, Japan) in which JAMCO will participate in the design of the aircraft’s carbon/epoxy ailerons and spoilers. First deliveries of the new aircraft have slipped to 2014. Elsewhere in the East, regional jet development and testing continues for the AVIC International (Beijing, China) ARJ21 and the Sukhoi (Moscow, Russia) Superjet 100.
Meanwhile, after robust 2008 sales, business and general aviation aircraft sales were sharply down in 2009 and 2010. The General Aviation Manufacturers Assn. (GAMA) reports that in 2010, total airplane shipments were down 11.4 percent compared to 2009 (2,015 units vs. 2,274 units). Unfortunately, the trend appears to be continuing in 2011. Shipments through the first six months of 2011 were down 15.5 percent compared to the same period in 2010 (791 units vs. 936 units).
Still, manufacturers are moving forward. For example, Bombardier announced in October 2011 that production of its new Learjet 85 aircraft had officially begun, following the program’s successful exit from the Aircraft Level Critical Design Review. Development and production teams in Wichita, Kan.; Montréal, Québec, Canada; Belfast, Northern Ireland; and Querétaro, Mexico are engaged in the manufacturing validation phase. Production of wing spars and planks using Resin Transfer Infusion (RTI) technology was successfully launched at the Belfast site in spring 2011.
Hawker Beechcraft’s (Wichita, Kan.) Hawker 4000 super-midsized business jet was delivered to its first customer in June 2008. The Hawker 4000 has a 6-ft/183-cm diameter carbon/epoxy fuselage barrel made in an automated tape laying process. Embraer’s Phenom models, fabricated with about 20 percent carbon/epoxy composites, were launched in May 2005. The smaller Phenom 100 was certified in the U.S. and Brazil at the end of 2008, and the Phenom 300 was certified by the U.S. Federal Aviation Admin. (FAA) in late 2009 and by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) in early 2010, followed by first deliveries. Even metals-centric Gulfstream Aerospace Corp. (Savannah, Ga.) will produce its new Gulfstream G650 heavy business jet with more composites than previous Gulfstream models, but composites will be confined mainly to secondary structures: horizontal stabilizer, elevator and rudder, winglets, wing fixed trailing edge, wing-to-fuselage fairing, engine cowlings, engine pylons and rear pressure bulkhead. The company rolled out the G650 in October 2009 and says it remains on schedule for 2012 delivery.
In 2011, Lockheed Martin (Bethesda, Md.) and partners Northrop Grumman (Reston, Va.), BAE Systems (London, U.K.), GKN Aerospace Services and a host of subcontractors continued work on the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter. The three partners are more than halfway through a 12-year System Development and Demonstration (SDD) phase, which includes production and testing of 20 aircraft. All 20 are currently in production or on the flight line for testing. As of September 2011, the flight test program had conducted 1,154 test flights at facilities in Maryland, California, Florida and Texas. In September 2011, Lockheed Martin successfully completed static structural testing of the F-35, achieving one of five milestones established by the Joint Program Office for 2011. Static structural testing is used to verify the structural integrity of the airframe and to ensure that the specifications outlined in the technical drawings are accurate. The first F-35 deliveries are expected in the 2016 to 2018 time frame.
Alenia Aeronautica is slated to produce more than1,200 wings for the F-35 program, Northrop Grumman makes the center fuselage, and BAE Systems will make the aft fuselage and tails. ATK (Magna, Utah) produces the wingskins, and Lockheed makes the forward fuselage and assembles the finished aircraft in Ft. Worth, Texas. In May 2010, Vector Composites (Dayton, Ohio) and Quickstep Holdings Ltd. (North Coogee, Australia) were awarded a Small Business Innovation Research grant to assess the use of Quickstep’s patented out-of-autoclave curing technology to manufacture composite structures used in the F-35. The 27-month program will focus on qualification of bismaleimide and epoxy resin-based composite materials, using the Quickstep process.
Cramped like its commercial counterparts by delays in 2008 and early 2009, the composites-intensive A400M military transport aircraft from Airbus Military (Madrid, Spain) now appears to be moving forward with new power plants. The first flight of the heavy-lift cargo plane, which will replace aging U.S.-built C-130s and C-160s in Europe, took place in December 2009 in Seville, Spain. In August 2010, the A400M’s wings passed an ultimate-load up-bend test, enduring loads up to 150 percent of the maximum expected in service. Airbus Military has committed to begin aircraft deliveries three years after first flight, in late 2012 or early 2013. The massive military transport plane’s composite structures include 18.3m/60-ft composite wing spars designed and tape layed by GKN Aerospace (Cowes, Isle of Wight, U.K.), as well as vacuum-infused upper cargo doors.
After a Northrop Grumman/EADS/Airbus consortium won a contract in early 2008 for the KC-X, a new U.S. military aerial refueling tanker to replace the aging KC-135R, Boeing successfully protested the decision, and the U.S. Department of Defense started over, issuing a new request for proposals under new ground rules. The outcome of the contentious, on-again/off-again $40 billion contract process was unknown at SOURCEBOOK press time, but it represents significant opportunities for composites, regardless of which team wins the award.
Space flight faced major changes as the Obama Administration, coping with increasing deficits, scrutinized NASA’s Constellation program, an effort to replace the Space Shuttle using Ares-family launch vehicles to ferry astronauts to the moon, resupply the International Space Station (ISS) and conduct other low-Earth orbit tasks. President Obama signed the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 into law, which effectively brought the Constellation program to an end. But since then, another program has emerged, called the Space Launch System or SLS, which is being developed to launch astronauts to asteroids, the moon, Mars and other destinations with the agency's new heavy launch vehicle (which builds on the original Ares platforms). The Orion crew exploration vehicle or capsule, originally part of Constellation, was saved for use as a possible rescue capsule on the ISS and was rolled into the SLS for deep-space crew transport as well. At SOURCEBOOK 2012 press time, NASA announced plans to add an unmanned flight test of the Orion spacecraft in early 2014 to its contract with Littleton, Colo.-based Lockheed Martin Space Systems for the multipurpose crew vehicle's design, development, test and evaluation. NASA’s stated goal is to reduce the cost and schedule risks of exploration missions going forward.
With U.S. government space exploration in flux, NASA officials pointed to private commercial entities that are developing a variety of craft to take humans into low-earth orbit and beyond. The best known of the civilian space companies, Virgin Galactic (Las Cruces, N.M.), officially opened its Spaceport America base in Las Cruces, from which it plans to transport paying customers to space on the VSS Enterprise, a six-passenger vessel that will be airlifted into the upper atmosphere for launch by a mothership dubbed Eve. The latter was unveiled in July 2008 as the world’s largest all-carbon composite aircraft. Both were designed and built by Scaled Composites LLC (Mojave, Calif.). VSS Enterprise completed its first manned glide flight in October 2010, releasing from carrier Eve at an altitude of 45,000 ft/13,700m over Mojave, Calif., and then landing safely. Virgin Galactic spent most of 2011 testing the suborbital craft.
Currently, a major focus of private space firms is the Google Lunar X PRIZE, a $30 million international competition to safely land a robot on the surface of the Moon, travel 500m/1,640 ft over the lunar surface and send images and data back to Earth. The first team to complete the mission will be awarded as much as $20 million.
A top X PRIZE contender is SpaceX, started by PayPal founder Elon Musk, which in June 2010 launched its 180-ft/55m tall two-stage Falcon 9 rocket. Although the first and second stage barrels and domes are aluminum, a carbon composite interstage structure joins the stages and houses the second stage’s engines and four parachutes that return the first stage to Earth. Other space vehicles also feature composites in their structures, including Orbital Sciences Corp.’s (Dulles, Va.) Taurus II rocket, Sierra Nevada Corp.’s (Denver, Colo.) Dream Chaser crew vehicle, Blue Origin’s (Kent, Wash.) New Shepard suborbital vehicle and XCOR Aerospace’s (Mojave, Calif.) Lynx Mark I and II vehicles.
The boom in the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) market continues, with hundreds of designs competing for both military and civilian contracts worldwide. Although UAVs range from commercial airliner-sized vehicles to palm-sized microflyers, the small, long-endurance “tactical” UAVs — those that support intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) — are becoming key components of military and homeland security missions.
UAVs show the most dynamic growth in the global aerospace industry. Derrick Maple, senior unmanned systems analyst at IHS Jane’s (Bracknell, Berkshire, U.K.), foresees demand for nearly 50,000 UAV units through 2019, 75 percent of which will be small UAVs weighing less than 66 lb/30 kg. The annual growth of the currently $105 billion (USD) unmanned aerial system (UAS) industry will be between 5 and 10 percent per annum, with double-digit growth between 2020 and 2030. At least 70 companies are actively producing a total of 200 unique UAVs.
Composites are the material of choice for UAV airframes, regardless of size. The high strength-to-weight ratio and limited radar signature and signal transparency are the main drivers. Because pilot and passenger risk isn’t an issue, UAV designers have a wider range of design possibilities to meet mission objectives.
In 2010, QinetiQ (London, U.K., and McLean, Va.) set a record with the flight of its Zephyr solar-powered UAS. The aircraft, a mere 112 lb/51 kg, has a 73-ft/22.5m wingspan and is designed to hold station in the stratosphere for weeks or even months. Company spokespersons report that the all-carbon-fiber UAS is nearly ready for production and say it will be manufactured at QinetiQ North America’s Huntsville, Ala., facility.