The markets: Aerospace (2018)

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, they’ll also use a mixture of glass and carbon-reinforced thermosets and thermoplastics in a growing and diverse suite of interior and semi-structural applications. 

Both of the majors predicted futures replete with upward trends. Airbus anticipated in its Global Market Forecast for 2017-2036 “Growing Horizons” that air traffic will grow by 4.4% (down from last year’s 4.5%) annually and, therefore, will increase in value to nearly US$5.3 trillion, up from its 2016 estimate of US$5.2 trillion, reflecting air traffic (measured in revenue passenger kilometers or RPK) that doubles every 15 years. Total commercial aircraft demand by 2036 will number 34,900 total units (that’s up from 33,700 predicted in 2016) — 34,170 of them for passenger service and the remainder, 730, freighters. The Asia Pacific region will account for 41% of the demand, while the US and all of Europe will together account for 36%. About 40% of the new planes will replace aging craft, but fully 60% will fuel overall fleet growth. Single-aisle commercial jets will dominate the market, making up 71% of new units. 

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Over the next 20 years, passenger aircraft deliveries will break down as follows: 24,807 single-aisle, 8,175 twin-aisle, and 1,184 in the “jumbo” class — all up from 2016 estimates.  Airbus says RPKs grew by 6.3% in 2016, and will grow on average by 4.9% per annum in the first decade of the forecast period, and by an average 4.1% during the second decade. The world’s “middle class” will double in the next 20 years, increasing 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 2036. Traffic between emerging economies is forecast to grow at 6.2% per annum and will account for 40% of all air traffic by 2036. Mainland China will account for the largest traffic flow by the end of the forecast period, almost 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 and 2016, paints a more optimistic picture: While the world’s GDP is anticipated to grow at 2.8 percent annually over the next 20 years, growth in airline passenger traffic (RPK) will exceed 4.7%. The air traffic market will be valued at US$6.1 trillion (up from $5.9 trillion in 2016), representing 41,300 commercial aircraft (up from 39,600 predicted in 2016 and 38,050 in 2015) required to meet demand in the coming two decades. About 38% of all new aircraft will be delivered to airlines in the Asia Pacific region (China’s passenger air travel has increased for several years by 10% per year), 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 29,530, fully 70% of the demand during the forecast period. These new airplanes will continue to stimulate growth for low-cost carriers and will provide required replacements for older, less-efficient models. Notably, Boeing sees 8,210 widebody, twin-aisle planes in its forecast, a count that’s down from 2016’s 9,100. The balance will consist of regional jets (2,370) and 920 classed as freighters.

Regionally, demand for aircraft among Asia Pacific carriers, according to Boeing, will be almost double that from any other region — 16,130. European carriers will order 7,470; North American carriers, 8,640; Middle Eastern airlines will demand 3,350; Latin America will order 3,010; the CIS will claim 1,230; and African carriers will need 1,220. Overall fleet growth over the two decades will average 3.5% annually.

Brazil-based aircraft manufacturer Embraer Commercial Aviation (São José dos Campos, Brazil) released its Embraer Market Outlook 2017, which predicts 2.8% growth in GDP and 4.5% growth in RPK, increasing traffic more than 2.5 times by 2036. In 2036, the Middle East and the Asia Pacific region will be the fastest growing air travel markets (annual RPK growth rate of ~ 6%). Latin America will follow at 5.2%/yr, and Africa with 4.9%. The CIS will average 3.6%/yr; Europe, 3.6%; and North America will grow most slowly at 2.7%/yr. 

Embraer says the 70- to 130-seat single-aisle fleet-in-service will increase from 2,700 aircraft in 2016 to 6,710 by 2036, the fastest growing segment among all commercial plane categories. Replacement of aging aircraft will account for 37% of new deliveries and 63% will come from market growth. 

 These very similar figures invite the question: Will OEMs 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? 

In the composites world, there was concern here in 2016, as experts expressed increasing doubt whether the composite fuselage structures that had helped successfully lightweight mid-size, twin-aisle commercial aircraft and increased passenger comfort by solving metal-related pressure and humidity issues  could be successfully applied to replace what would otherwise be much thinner aluminum fuselage structures on replacements for aging single-aisle aircraft. That concern, however, helped revive interest in already certified hybrid materials called fiber-metal laminates (FMLs) that combine metal and composite products. Designed to take advantage of the best qualities of each material class, they were developed particularly to counteract the riveted aluminum aircraft structure’s vulnerability to fatigue cracking. 

Pioneered by the earliest incarnation of GKN Aerospace’s (Redditch, UK) Fokker business (Papendrecht, The Netherlands), FMLs today feature alternating bonded layers of treated aluminum sheet and fiber/epoxy prepreg. The combination addresses not only the critical issue of fatigue, but also provide the means to lightweight those thinner single-aisle aircraft fuselage skins yet remain damage resistant. 

And in an increasingly global marketplace, it was probably inevitable: Denver, CO, US-based aerospace industry startup Boom Technology revealed that it is building the XB-1, a flying one-third-scale demonstrator, dubbed Baby Boom, to demonstrate the key technologies that will be used on its coming full-scale, faster-than-sound Boom commercial aircraft. Boom is one of several groups looking to replace the long retired supersonic transport, the Concorde, jointly developed and built during the late 1960s by Aerospatiale and British Aircraft Corp. (BAC). Boom’s XB-1 and ultimately, the full-size Boom jet will benefit from computational fluid dynamics (CFD) analysis, using NASA-derived simulation codes (not available to Concorde’s designers) and an all-composite construction that will exhibit a much lower co-efficient of thermal expansion than was possible with the Concorde. (The latter’s all-aluminum airframe reportedly experienced up to 300 mm of expansion over its length due to air friction at speed.) Reduced weight will contribute to the Boom jet’s operational efficiencies. As a result, the company predicts its jet will serve customers at ticket prices one quarter that of those charged for the Concorde (in today’s dollars) and shave 45 minutes from the Concorde’s fabled 4-hour New York City-to-London flight time.

In 2017, the continued grow of private efforts to launch commercial satellites into low Earth orbit (LEO) came into sharp focus in the composites industry. The majority of such satellites, it turns out, are small (SmallSats), many literally smaller than the proverbially breadbox (CubeSats). One result is that the equipment required to place them into orbit needn’t be as imposing or, importantly, as expensive as the Saturn, Delta and other massive rockets we’ve grown accustomed to watching lift off in the past topped with Space Shuttles and the like. There is also a growing backlog of grounded satellites of small size waiting to fly into orbit and get to work. CW got wind in 2017 of an enterprising composites-oriented launch system manufacturer, Rocket Lab, founded by New Zealander Peter Beck, CEO, with administrative, design and manufacturing operations located in Auckland, NZ, and in Huntington Beach, CA, US. His is one of several commercial companies that have taken aim at this market. In October 2015, the National Aeronautics and Space Admin. (NASA, Washington, DC, US) awarded Rocket Lab a Venture Class Launch Services contract, valued at US$6.95 million, for demonstration CubeSat launches to LEO on its Electron rocket. Provided with additional funding from Lockheed Martin (Bethesda, MD, US) and other sources, Rocket Lab was recently valued at more than US$1 billion. 

Notably, Rocket Lab advertises dedicated (single-customer) launches at a mere ~US$5 million — compared to a reported US$62 million for a ride on Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (Hawthorne, CA, US) much larger Falcon 9 — and promises either a dedicated delivery “when and where required” or a rideshare service. In terms of size, United Launch Alliance’s (ULA, Denver, CO, US) Vulcan new-generation launch vehicle is projected to lift up to 20 MT to LEO in payload fairings 5.4m diameter and up to 26.5m length, but the comparatively small 17m high, 1.2m diameter Electron is designed to lift a nominal payload CubeSat-sized 150 kg to LEO. The difference in size, power requirements and payload capacity, and the relative simplicity of Electron — its launch components are not reusable, so it does not need the high sophistication required of a system that must return to earth, refuel, and relaunch multiple times — make it an appealing bargain for small-satellite customers. It also will make Rocket Lab a regular customer for composite materials to build the carbon-fiber-reinforced outer cases that surround both of the rocket’s two stages. Given the size of the SmallSat market and the length of current launch backlog, it’s likely Rocket Lab will have competitors and more than one will also build with composites.

Meanwhile, ULA in early 2017 revealed it would replace its Atlas and Delta rockets with the noted next-generation Vulcans. Supplier Ruag Space was selected to provide lower cost/improved quality out-of-autoclave fabrication of Vulcan’s composite primary structures. Ruag also will manufacture 5.4m payload fairings and 400-series interstage adapters for ULA’s newer Atlas V rocket.


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