Market Trends: Standing on the Threshold

In his book by the same name, Malcom Gladwell describes The Tipping Point as “that magical moment when an idea, trend or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips and spreads like wildfire.” After decades of strong growth driven by a desire for improved performance, high-performance composites have arrived at the

In his book by the same name, Malcom Gladwell describes The Tipping Point as “that magical moment when an idea, trend or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips and spreads like wildfire.” After decades of strong growth driven by a desire for improved performance, high-performance composites have arrived at the tipping point.

Consider the exciting projects all around us: Composites on Boeing’s 787 and the Airbus A350 XWB will change forever the economics and comfort of passenger jets. The Joint Strike Fighter is driving automation improvements to meet the rate and affordability requirements of the program. The accuracy and stability of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope will be enabled by composites as it travels 1.5 million miles away from Earth to look back to the beginning of time. And NASA also is considering widespread use of composites in next-generation launch vehicles, such as ARES, for Moon and Mars missions.

While there is much to celebrate, there still are a number of issues that must be addressed to ensure that our technology does, indeed, tip over and realize its potential for sustainable growth. Here’s my list of things our industry needs to aggressively tackle.

Improved throughput. Hand layup delivers about 2 lb per hour per person. Automated tape laying can deliver 60 lb per hour but is limited in its ability to handle complex geometry. Typical automated fiber placement machines deliver 3 to 5 lb per hour, but there are advanced machines (including some in use in our shop at ATK) that can achieve 12 lb per hour. With market forces driving finished per-pound price, however, it can take as many as 15 years to pay back the machine’s capital cost. To reduce per-pound cost, shorten payback and maintain market momentum, we must encourage massive improvements in throughput. ATK’s goal for automated fiber placement is 60 lb per hour. This will require an integrated solution that includes improved material forms, faster machine speeds, lighter machine components and lighter mandrels — goals well within the reach of today’s maturing technologies.

High-speed inspection. Current ultrasonic inspection techniques can require as much time to inspect parts as it takes to build them. The ultimate goal is to develop manufacturing processes that consistently deliver parts that do not require inspection. Until we reach that state, we need to have highly automated inspection technology that can scan a much wider band at each pass than is currently possible.

Composite tooling. Composite tools offer a number of advantages over Invar, steel or aluminum tools: relatively easy changeability during development; less sag on long, heavy parts; safer handling; lower maintenance costs and reduced thermal mass, which shortens cure cycles. But because we have relatively little experience with them, we tend to default to more expensive but proven metal. Very large parts (e.g., single-barrel airplane fuselage sections), however, are going to require composite tools to stay within reasonable weight ranges. Questions about composite tools’ durability need to be answered to enable their widespread use.

Out-of-autoclave cure. If we look at the projected mar-ket for composite aircraft and translate that into the large number of autoclaves that would be required to meet production rates, we realize it is unaffordable. At this point, however, we have limited data on out-of-autoclave material performance, so approaches that use proven materials remain the most attractive.

Commodity materials. As we drive cost out of the manufacturing process, materials account for a larger percentage of overall cost — and are now the largest barrier to market growth. Multiple specifications for similar materials, lack of allowable databases connected to processing techniques, duplication of database generation and a host of other obstacles presented by today’s “boutique” materials currently prevent composites from achieving the commodity status of its aluminum competitor. While a number of initiatives already are addressing this issue, we must more aggressively, and cooperatively, pursue a solution.

Educated personnel. Growth, ultimately, will be fueled by well-trained, highly motivated, technically qualified engineers and operators. Our industry must actively pursue partnerships with state and local governments, universities, and small and large businesses to generate the pool of able engineers and technicians that we will need to manage widespread technology transfer.

Once thought impossible, ATK’s vision of fiber-placing at 60 lb per hour on a composite mandrel with an affordable, out-of-autoclave-cure material is, today, actually within reach. As we all achieve similar visions, we’ll move beyond the tipping point to unprecedented market expansion.