CW Blog

As commercial aviation expands to accommodate a new class of international travelers from emerging markets such as China and India, demand on small and midsized aerospace suppliers to expand production capacity is placing a premium not just on automation or skilled labor, but on the supplier’s overall scalability.

The challenge of accommodating for growth and increasing throughput is different today than it was just a few years ago. With a shrinking supply of skilled manufacturing workers responsible for increasingly automated and complex machining processes, scaling up now favors knowledge sharing and the systemization of operations over the traditional goal of simply boosting employee headcount.

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At last year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the CEO of China’s largest online travel service predicted that the number of Chinese passport holders could nearly double in the next 24 months. If that sounds impossible, consider that less than 10 percent of Chinese citizens own a passport today. Then consider that from 2000 to 2017, the number of Chinese residents traveling outside of mainland China skyrocketed from 10.5 million to 145 million — an increase of nearly 1,400 percent — according to the China Outbound Tourism Research Institute.

The shockwaves of increased outbound travel from emerging markets such as China, not to mention India and the Middle East, are radiating across industries. But in many ways, this projected surge impacts one industry above all: commercial aviation.

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As the commercial aerospace sector prepares for a new round of major program launches, the question of where and how composites will be applied weighs heavily on the supply chain.

 

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When asked about the most challenging aspect of the CarbonPro carbon fiber-reinforced thermoplastic (CFRTP) composite pickup box, which debuted on 2019 short-bed (crew-cab) GMC Sierra AT4 (off-road) and Sierra Denali half-ton pickups, Mark Voss, engineering group manager of advanced structural composites and pickup boxes at General Motors Co. (GM, Detroit, Mich., U.S.), laughs. “The most challenging part?” he asks. “Every part of this project was challenging. Everything was new: we had new design criteria, new impact and rear-barrier performance specs, plus we had a new material and process. Every part of the design process was a challenge at one point or another. However, the results speak for themselves: the CarbonPro box is a game-changing execution.”

Voss, who previously worked on composite applications for Corvette, knows a thing or two about innovation and talking management into trying new things. Starting in 2011, he was involved with initial negotiations and later joint-development work with Teijin Ltd. (Tokyo, Japan) to commercialize automotive applications for Teijin’s then newly developed Sereebo CFRTP sheet composite (see “Sereebo CFRTP sheets: ‘Saving the Earth’”). Three years of what Voss calls “learning cycles” — running trials and evaluations, finding and addressing issues, then running more trials and evaluations — followed before team members felt they understood how the material behaved and where to use it. That’s when they began looking for an application and platform for Sereebo’s automotive industry debut. By 2015, they’d identified the pickup box on the 2019 model year Sierra Denali as ideal.

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Thermoplastic composites (TPC) aren’t new to the aerospace sector, but the past couple of years have seen thermoplastic usage in commercial aircraft reach a tipping point. While TPCs have been used for some time for smaller parts such as clips and brackets, or smaller interior components, thermoplastics have been working their way into larger aircraft structures incrementally and now seemed poised to play a bigger role in the future of commercial aircraft. 

In March 2018, Toray Industries Inc. (Tokyo, Japan), the world’s largest carbon fiber manufacturer, acquired TenCate Advanced Composites (Morgan Hill, Calif., U.S. and Nijverdal, Netherlands) for €930 million (TenCate has since changed its name to Toray Advanced Composites). The move seemed to be an effort to strengthen Toray’s thermoplastics capabilities in preparation for the next wave of commercial aircraft development. Shortly after that announcement, Hexcel (Stamford, Conn., U.S.) and Arkema Inc. (King of Prussia, Pa., U.S.) announced a strategic alliance to develop thermoplastic composite solutions for aerospace, combining Hexcel’s skill in carbon fiber manufacture with Arkema’s polyetherketoneketone (PEKK) resins expertise. And over the course of the year, several other pieces of the thermoplastics puzzle seemed to fall into place.

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