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.