Composites? Not as Lame as Some Would Have You Believe

Like many others, I am delighted to see the progress made over recent years by some of the major aircraft manufacturers to deliver significant improvements in fuel efficiency and associated environmental impact. Popular media examples are the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and the Airbus A350. Improving the performance of aircraft like these involves almost every system and component of the aircraft from the engines, aerodynamics and aerostructures to the vast array of power, mechanical, pneumatic and hydraulic systems and beyond. It cascades from the OEMs right down through the supply chain.

At the recent Paris Airshow, some Boeing test pilots dramatically demonstrated exactly what can be achieved with these new aircraft. Breathtaking.These truly are game changing aircraft.

But not everyone is impressed. As reported by Aviation Today in his speech at June’s AIAA Aviation conference in Dallas, Tom Enders, the Airbus Group CEO reported that SpaceX CEO Elon Musk had described the aerospace industry’s investment of $20 Billion to improve the performance of aircraft by 10% as “lame”. As the industry as a whole shifts focus from new aircraft to derivative aircraft from existing platforms for the next few years, with only incremental performance improvement, some might argue that Musk has a point.

But this is perhaps too simplistic a view. To dig a little deeper let’s take a look at one critical component of the aircraft — the aerostructure. The increased use of advanced and composite materials has played a large role in the performance gains discussed and the infographic from Airbus below shows just how much advanced materials form a part of the new A350. To Musk’s point, however, simply replacing one material with another that delivers the required structural characteristics at lighter weight requires significant investment but will yield diminishing returns, even if temporarily offset by new manufacturing techniques such as additive manufacturing.


Courtesy AIRBUS

Indeed this is true if we consider the material the aerostructure is made from as performing only a single function — namely to deliver the required structural characteristics. But what if we think outside of this one dimensional constraint? What if the material not only met the structural requirements of the airframe but also performed other functions such as conducting electrical current to replace the miles of wire on an aircraft, or was the energy storage system to replace the batteries, or was able to automatically heat and cool to be its own de-icing system? When you start to think like this the possibilities become endless. But are these just dreams or is there an element of reality? Well many leaders in the industry certainly think this is real.

Take Lockheed Martin as an example. In this video, their team describes how they are developing materials today to do just this the things I mentioned and more. Once you recognize the possibilities that these advanced multifunctional materials systems offer, it is clear that we are no longer talking about one dimensional incremental improvement but step change impact across multiple performance requirements.

I am proud to say that the team here at ANSYS is also involved in this exciting domain of multifunctional material design and development. We are an integral member of the MIT led Nano-Engineered Composite Aerospace Structures (NECST) Consortium — which counts among its members Boeing, Airbus, Lockheed Martin, Embraer and SAAB. As part of our focus in this area, we have generated some demonstration simulations that show how aircraft control surfaces can be manipulated using piezoelectric effects that couple electromagnetic and thermal effects into a composite material structural response and its ultimate impact on aerodynamic characteristics.

So when you start thinking about the possibilities offered by multifunctional materials, consider the challenge Musk posed. Are multifunctional composites and advanced materials lame? I don’t think so. Visit Smart Materials for Aerospace and Defense for more information.


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