The Future of Composites in Aerospace Manufacturing Featuring Dominic Ellul

The UK’s National Composites Centre (NCC) in Bristol opened a new research and development facility early in 2020, partly funded by the Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI). Their ambition is to harness emerging digital technology to build the aircraft wings of the future.

The rapidly growing global composites market was predicted to be worth ~£83bn in 2020 and is predicted to continue rising at a rate of £5bn per year. The NCC is doing everything possible to keep Brittan at the forefront of composite advancements and manufacturing. Composites are of particular interest in the aviation industry as the materials they are developing are increasingly stronger, lighter and more durable than the materials we have used to build aircraft in the last century. This will ensure the aircraft of the future will be even safer, more fuel-efficient and will have a much longer lifespan while being compliant with the increasingly stringent emission and noise legislation.

Reducing the weight of aircraft wings using new composite materials will be a game-changer in meeting the performance gains required without compromising on the strict safety standards of manufacturing aircraft parts. However, our current labour-intensive process of manufacturing aircraft wings means that producers can only make 6 wings per month, where the market demand is 100 wings per month. The NCC believe that they have developed a new machine that will help them to meet the demand.

Forty years ago, aluminium was viewed as the wonder material for the aviation industry as it was lightweight, inexpensive and state-of-the-art, so 70% of most aircraft manufactured historically was aluminium. So, aircraft maintenance teams primarily learned how to maintain and repair aluminium aircraft parts. However, aircraft of the future will be increasingly manufactured using composites. Therefore, the next generation of talent must have a good understanding of these composite materials and how they are manufactured to keep up with the way the industry is changing.       

We asked one of our apprentices, Dominic Ellul to tell us what he knows about composites as his generation will see a major shift in how composites and technology are used in their future careers.

What is a composite?

A composite is two or more materials, which are joined together to create improved properties. Normally, the composite material is made from reinforcements and a matrix. A reinforcement (different types of fibres) is mainly added to improve strength and a matrix, such as a polymer, ceramic, metal or carbon is used to combine everything. An example of this is reinforced concrete, which includes steel ‘caging’ to make the material sturdier and to stop it from flexing. Composites can also be a fusion between physical and chemical properties. For example, you can add a hardener to paint to make it dry faster. If you need characteristics from one material and another you can combine them to create a custom material that achieves the desired goals and that is what a composite material is.

Why are they used in aviation?

Aviation is engineering associated with aircraft. Composite materials allow engineers to achieve multiple benefits and improve on disadvantages in older designs. For example, the structure for an aeroplane is built using composite materials to create a strong, lightweight, and durable structure. This is because an aircraft must be strong enough to withstand extreme temperature changes and weather conditions, durable enough to be in service for a long time and be light enough to gain maximum fuel efficiency during flight. Also, it allows us to control the humidity levels of an aircraft and withstand the pressure it faces in the air. The materials allow aircraft to have more spacious interiors as there is less support needed due to the advanced strength so they can be used to transport more passengers and/or cargo.

How are they used/installed?

A great way to install composite materials is by using moulds as they are more accurate than other methods. They are a lot easier to use as you just lay the material inside the mould and wait for it to completely dry before use. It is more accurate as the material will follow the mould the same way every time it is used so it also helps with consistency when making new parts. To release the material from the mould you must break/peel the mould from it.

When you take it out of the mould, you need to rivet all the different sections together. However, before this is done there is a ‘skeleton’ made which helps it to have structural rigidity. This is labour intensive so not efficient enough to keep up with the demand from the industry, so innovation in technologies such as 3D printing and machine automation will be vital in the coming years.

What do you think the future of composites will look like?

New materials are starting to emerge such as carbon fibre. This material is used in 3D printing to enable quicker process time and it is just as accurate as making a mould. It also requires less labour as it is all computer-based, you just need the skills to programme a 3D printer, which is something that more engineers are becoming comfortable with.

Carbon titanium is also a new, high-end material. This enables people to have an extremely strong structure with no weight penalties. In the future, this could be 3D printed like carbon fibre. This material is mostly used for shells and body parts of cars.

The pandemic was responsible for accelerating our shift to using more composites as the price of steel increased and availability decreased. So, engineers and manufacturers were forced to think outside the box and use different materials to deliver the same quality products without any weight gains and within the same timeframe.

The future of the composite industry will be an exciting one to watch as I predict that it will play a major role in the design and manufacture of many products and structures used in aircraft, cars, bridges and even houses.

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