You are here

A fast-changing market

News International-French

14 Apr 2011

A new generation of composite-intensive aircraft designs coupled with broader market growth promises to dramatically accelerate the growth of aerospace composites from currently 37 million pounds to 82 million pounds by 2017.

(Published on June 2008 – JEC Magazine #41)




The advantages of composites are well known: high strengthto- weight ratio, excellent fatigue and corrosion resistance, good impact resistance, design flexibility and lower part count. Weight savings are particularly important in a market environment characterized by high fuel prices and the prospect of ever-more stringent aircraft emissions standards. The air transport sector has increased composite usage over the last few decades − the Airbus A320 in the late 1980s and the Boeing 777 that followed increased the per-plane use of composites to 10-15% of the total structural weight. New technologies and process innovations, such as automated tape laying, have decreased costs and are responsible for increased use of composites on the new Airbus A380 and A350XWB, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, and several new regional jet and business jet models.


Composites step ahead

Even business aircraft designs, traditionally conservative about composite integration, are beginning to yield to the material’s new value proposition. Raytheon, for example, has leveraged technology and experience gained from the ill-fated Starship programme to create composite fuselages for its Premier and Hawker 4000 designs. And Learjet recently chose a composite fuselage for its new Learjet 85 design.


Aeroengines are also increasingly using composites. The GEnx will incorporate more than 1,500 lbs of composites, or 13% of the total engine weight. This is more than twice that of the GE90 engine, which pioneered the first composite fan.


Finally, there is a growing demand for maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) services for composite components, such as repairing thrust reversers, radomes, nacelles, control surfaces, structural components and cabin interiors.


While these anecdotes are interesting, how large is the aerospace composite market and how much growth is anticipated as a result of new high-composite aircraft designs? AeroStrategy recently completed a comprehensive, bottoms-up forecast of the aerospace raw material market and concluded that the aerospace composite demand is currently 37 million pounds and will reach 82 million pounds by 2017 − an impressive 8% compound annual growth rate (CAGR). The growth is underpinned by carbon fibre reinforced plastic (CFRP), popular in aerostructures, which will increase at a 12% CAGR to reach nearly 50 million pounds by 2017.



Fast-growing demand

Will several aircraft programmes be able to underpin this growth? Not surprisingly, it is the major programmes from the air transport sector that lead the way. The largest single programme will be the Boeing 787, which will soak up 23% of the 600 million pounds in composites required for aircraft production over the next decade (excluding engines). Other major Boeing programmes include the B777 (7%) and B737 (7%). Airbus programmes will also stimulate market growth, led by the A320 (10%), A350XWB (7%), A330/340 (7%) and A380 (7%). There are dozens of aircraft programmes that make up the remaining quarter of composite demand including the B747-800, A400-M, F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, C-17, Eurofighter, EMB 170/190, and the V-22.



Though aerospace composite usage is headed skyward, much of the credit can go to recent advances in technologies and processes, including automated tape lay-up (ATL) machines, fibre placement, resin transfer moulding (RTM), and resin film infusion (RFI), which have all lowered production costs. Structures that cost $500/lb to fabricate in the early 1990s are now much less expensive – some as low as $125- 150/lb. Not surprisingly, the latest designs make far freer use of composite materials.


A new approach

The growth in composite usage will reshape the aerospace supply chain as it shifts away from the “metal bending” paradigm that has been in place since the 1920s. Aircraft OEMs appear to be pursuing an automotive industry strategy, focusing on final assembly and system integration while cutting back on internal production. In practice, this shifts the commercial and technological risk on to supply chain partners. A good recent example is Boeing’s divestiture of its Wichita and Tulsa fuselage production facilities (now Spirit Aerosystems). Similarly, Airbus is moving to divest much of its aerostructure capability via its Power8 initiative. Consequently, the market available to aerostructure firms will grow faster than the overall aerospace production. At the other end of the supply chain, raw material suppliers are adding capacity for aerospace-grade carbon fibre. However, short supply will likely persist through the end of this decade, which could open opportunities for new market entrants or permit additional growth for commercial-grade suppliers. This composites-oriented environment will challenge tier II suppliers, especially those with annual turnovers of less than $100 million. Among the challenges: shifting distribution channels from OEMs to tier I companies, a process that will upset long-standing business relationships; developing composite capabilities; competing with a wave of new tier II suppliers in regions where labour is less expensive, such as eastern Asia. These factors will produce turmoil and consolidation, with considerable fallout. The MRO supply chain will see similar changes, with additional pressure on MRO firms to find workers skilled in composites-related tasks. The aerospace industry has always been at the leading edge of technology development for advanced materials. In the 1920s and 1930s, it created lightweight aluminium alloys that ushered in the age of metallic aircraft. In the 1950s and 1960s, it developed superalloys to cope with the severe demands of jet engines and spacecraft. And in the 1970s and 1980s, it pioneered the use of advanced composites for military aircraft. Once viewed as a desirable but expensive option for aircraft designs, composites have come of age largely due to economic factors. With production costs continuing to fall and high fuel prices, they are increasingly viewed as the best value rather than simply the most advanced design alternative.