The markets: Aerospace (2017)

The world’s two largest aerospace manufacturers, once again, shared center stage as commercial aircraft stayed in the composites spotlight, expected to be increasingly heavy users of carbon fiber composites.

The world’s two largest aerospace manufacturers, once again, shared center stage as commercial aircraft stayed in the composites spotlight, expected to be increasingly heavy users of carbon fiber composites, for primary and secondary structures, and a mixture of glass and carbon-reinforced thermosets and thermoplastics in a growing and diverse suite of interior applications.

            Both of the majors predicted futures replete with upward trends. Airbus anticipated in its Global Market Forecast for 2016-2035 “Mapping Demand” that air traffic will grow by 4.5% annually and therefore increase in value to nearly US$5.2 trillion, up from its 2015 estimate of US$4.9 trillion, reflecting air traffic (RPK) that doubles every 15 years. Total commercial aircraft demand by 2035 will number 33,070 units (that’s up from 32,585 predicted this past year) — 32,425 of them for passenger service and the remainder, 645, freighters. Over the next 20 years, passenger aircraft deliveries will break down as follows: 23,530 single-aisle, 8,060 twin-aisle, and 1,480 in the “jumbo” class – notably representing a jump in single-aisle but slight retrenchments in Airbus predictions for the latter two categories, compared to those made in 2015, all up from 2014 estimates.  Airbus says passenger traffic continues to outperform the world’s gross domestic product (GDP) in terms of growth, in 2015 by 5.8%, and that both will go up, powered by emerging economies, which will grow on average by 4-6% per year in the 2016-2035 timeframe. The world’s “middle class” will double in the next 20 years, increases from 2.79 billion to 4.83 billion (as the world’s total population rises from 7.35 billion to 8.85 billion), so Airbus predicts international tourist arrivals will reach 1.6 billion people by 2020, a 47% increase. Further, the Asia Pacific region will experience a three-fold increase in air traffic by 2035. Traffic between emerging economies is forecast to grow at 6.3% per annum, and will account for 39% of all air traffic by 2035. Mainland China will account for the largest traffic flow by the end of the forecast period, quadrupling in size. Meanwhile, domestic US traffic will increase by 50%. The Asia-Pacific and Middle East regions will account for 75% of the top 20 traffic flows.

For its part, Boeing, in its Current Market Outlook 2016-2035, as it did in 2015, paints an even more optimistic picture: While the world’s GDP is anticipated to grow at 2.9 percent annually over the next 20 years, growth in passenger traffic (RPK) will exceed 4.8% and air cargo traffic will increase by 4.2% (down from the 4.7% predicted last year). The air traffic market will be valued at US$5.9 trillion (up from $5.6 trillion in 2015), representing 39,600 commercial aircraft (38,050, predicted in 2015) required to meet demand in the coming 20 years. About 38% of all new aircraft will be delivered to airlines in the Asia Pacific region, says Boeing. An additional 40% will go to carriers in North America and Europe. Airlines in the Middle East, Latin America, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and Africa will demand the 22% that remain.

Single-aisle airplanes will command the largest share of new deliveries, with airlines needing more than 28,100 units. These new airplanes will continue to stimulate growth for low-cost carriers and will provide required replacements for older, less-efficient models. In addition, 9,100 new widebody airplanes, almost 800 more than predicted a year ago, will be delivered, which will allow airlines to serve new markets more efficiently than in the past.

Regionally, demand for aircraft among Asia Pacific carriers, according to Boeing, will be almost double that from any other region — 15,130. European carriers will order 7,470, North American carriers, 8,330, Middle Eastern airlines will demand 3,310, the CIS will claim 1,170 and African carriers will need 1,150.

Brazil-based aircraft manufacturer Embraer Commercial Aviation (São José dos Campos, Brazil) released a market forecast for the Asia-Pacific region, predicting that airlines will take delivery of 1,570 new 70 to 130-seat jets in the coming 20 years (valued at US$75 billion, at list prices), representing 25% of the worldwide demand for the segment, during the period. According to the global Embraer Market Outlook, the overall market will demand 6,350 new jets in this category over the time period, valued at US$300 billion. Embraer further sees untapped opportunities in the Asia Pacific region, where more than 250 markets, or 30% of narrowbody-exclusive markets are served with less than once-daily frequency. The manufacturer believes that markets like these would be better served with 70-130 seat jets, based on the average number of passengers per departure. Another opportunity in the region is the replacement of aging fleets, where there are more than 250 jets in the 50 to 150-seat category with more than 10 years of service, which will be targets for replacement in the near future.

This invites the question when will the primes deliver on highly composites-intensive narrowbody single-aisle aircraft, the final and remaining huge and not yet fully charted territory for the composites industry’s exploration? James Austin, CEO of North Thin Ply Technology (Penthalaz-Cossonay, Switzerland) and a long-time industry growth consultant told CW early in 2016 that, although Boeing and Airbus have introduced new versions of their narrowbody ranges, in the 737 MAX and A320neo, with greater composites content, “the introduction of the much-anticipated narrowbodies is now expected to come much later, in the 2030s or beyond. Further the percentage of composites this represents is at issue. Although the wings are certain to be of composite construction, the practicality and feasibility of composite fuselages on narrowbody aircraft is currently in dispute. It remains to be seen if Bombardier’s CSeries and Mitsubishi’s MRJ regional jets will have any influence on the market dynamics for narrowbody aircraft. At the moment, all evidence points against this, but there could be a dramatic change should these composites-intensive models get some traction.”

 All that to say this: 2016 represented a commercial aircraft composites plateau, where composites industry developmental expansion is measured less by programs and unit numbers and more by technology impact and effectiveness. One the theme that emerged was one of consolidation and extension of now familiar programs: Hexcel (Stamford, CT, US), for example, announced that two key contracts to supply composites to Airbus Group have been amended and extended through 2030. Hexcel expects these contracts to generate total sales of US$15 billion for the duration of the contract.

The real excitement was in the space exploration divisions, were kept busy, along with a number of other private, space-oriented firms, with NASA’s new effort to push beyond Earth orbit and revisit not only the its moon but eventually visit its nearest planetary neighbor, Mars.

            A significant step in that direction was by NASA and The Boeing Co. (Chicago, IL, US) as 2016 dawned. In a joint effort, they designed, fabricated and tested a composite cryotank that, if scaled up to current space launch system dimensions, would weigh 30% less and cost 25% less than the best aluminum-lithium cryotanks used today, and could warrant transport of as much as 1,400 kg of additional payload to low-Earth orbit and beyond. The program was a significant step win for composites, after 50 years of metals-only cryotanks.

SpaceX and Orbital ATK (Dulles, VA, US) now regularly resupply the ISS. At this writing, SpaceX had completed eight and Orbital five missions. In May 2016, ISS hosted Dragon and Cygnus at the same time. And although NASA rejected its earlier crew vehicle bid, NASA awarded Sierra Nevada Corp. Space Systems (SNC, Louisville, CO, US) a CRS-2 contract in January 2016 for uncrewed ISS resupply missions via its Dream Chaser SpaceSystem (DCSS), scheduled for 2019-2024, with earliest launch expected in late 2019.

NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) selected SpaceX and The Boeing Co. (Chicago, IL, US) to design and build human-rated spacecraft to transport crew and cargo to the ISS. SpaceX is modifying its Dragon to meet NASA’s CCP requirements and Boeing is in the process of building its Crew Space Transportation (CST-100) Starliner.

Although Virgin Galactic (Mojave, CA, US), founded by Sir Richard Branson and abetted by aerospace composites boundary-pusher Burt Rutan, has yet to realize its much publicized space tourism enterprise, its newest rocket-powered SpaceShipTwo (SS2), the VSS Unity, is in the ground-test phase, after which it will undergo extensive flight testing. Flight tests will begin with captive-carry flights attached to the WhiteKnightTwo (WW2) “mothership” followed by glide flights before proceeding with rocket-launched flights of increasing length. The latest version of WW2, the VMS Eve, is in routine service as a trainer aircraft. In service, the company expects that a WW2 will ferry a fleet of ticketed-passenger-filled SS2s aloft, then launch them for rocket-powered flight beyond 100 km/62 miles above sea level for a short, weightless sub-orbital excursion to the Kármán line. Passengers will be returned to Earth via winged flight to a landing strip. Both of these space access systems have all-composite airframes. LauncherOne, the company’s all-composite satellite launch vehicle, is now in construction and testing, and represents Virgin Galactic’s commercial aspirations in the small LEO satellites realm. It will be built by Virgin’s sister group, The Spaceship Co., at its design and manufacturing facility in Long Beach, CA.

Notably, the burgeoning private commercial space industry has freed NASA to focus on the demanding and radical challenges of accessing and exploring deep space. NASA is building its Orion capsule as its space vehicle to take astronauts, eventually, to Mars — with Lockheed Martin as its prime contractor. Orion’s original metal atmospheric-re-entry heat shield has been shed for one designed from composites, and in a parallel program, an all-composite Orion capsule has been prototyped alongside the currently mainstreamed metallic version. NASA also is building a new Space Launch System (SLS) for missions beyond LEO. Although Boeing is its prime contractor, opportunities are also in the works for partnering with SpaceX for launches beyond LEO. NASA has contracted with SNC, for example, to provide critical hardware for a planned 2020 mission to Mars. Orbital ATK also has been selected by NASA, in this case, to study the concept
of a cislunar habitat (cislunar refers to the space lying between the Earth and the Moon, or to the Moon’s orbit), with an eye on an eventual human mission to Mars. Orbital’s Cygnus spacecraft is a strong candidate to be used as a habitat building block for these ventures.

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