Aluminum manufacturer Alcan, a division of Rio Tinto PLC, has announced new aluminum alloys under the brand name AirWare that are lighter in weight and can compete with carbon fiber composite materials. With composites gaining a significant share of the aerospace market, especially with new programs like the Boeing 787, the aluminum industry has begun to fight back.
AirWare can offer a weight savings of up to 30% compared with current alloys. As a result, these new alloys offer similar weight savings to composites, but without the complications of composite materials. Carbon fiber composites, such as those used on the Boeing 787, can be more difficult to repair from ground damage, which frequently occurs from baggage trucks and other ground support equipment accidents. Metal repairs are straightforward, well known, and more commonplace.
While carbon fiber composites remain slightly lighter in weight than aluminum, the tradeoffs include price, durability, and crash performance. Aluminum is less expensive than composite materials, and its characteristics and damage tolerance is well known. While simulations and drop tests have been run on composite fuselage structures, their performance in a crash is still an unknown factor.
Another factor is recycling. Aluminum is easily recycled, while separating carbon fibers from plastics can be more difficult.
Bombardier has selected AirWare for its upcoming CSeries. Airbus has also indicated that new aluminum alloys may be possible for its next single aisle aircraft, with Tom Williams, EVP for Programs stating “it wouldn’t be a done-deal that it would be composites.”
Bottom Line: The metal manufacturers have responded to composites, and airframe manufacturers now have a competitive choice. Competition drives innovation, making better products for us to fly on.
Ah, but does “AirWare” provide the same corrosion resistance that CFRP does? I think not.
No, of course not and that’s a significant benefit for composites. All we’re saying is that aluminum has risen from the dead, and is getting a customer and serious consideration for narrow-body programs, which are high cycle and more subject to “hangar rash.”
Every decision has trade-offs. In this case, weight, cost, corrosion-resistance, fire-resistance, toxicity, crash-worthiness, and recycle-ability are all factors that an OEM must consider and analyze.
The bottom line is that the new alloys have a viable launch customer in the CSeries, and that given the need for rugged reliability in high cycle aircraft, there is now an alternative.
It should be interesting to see which technology wins as the next generation of narrow-body programs develop.
Babbage & I thought that one day it would be possible to knit up an airliner on a machine driven by punched cards. What a tremendous advantage over sticks & siding!
Boeing seems to be hiding the punch cards, though.
You will have to return home, maybe?
There is no need to despair as
knitting and sewing seems to be Airbus forte 😉
Derided as “panel liner manufacture” Airbus seems
intent on going towards sewn structure in large but
non looped pieces. Take the rear bulkhead (forex
the one for the B787 manufactured by an EADS subsidy
using Airbus knowhow) as path leading example.