Composite Materials and Aviation Industry

Aircraft manufacturing technology has come a long way from the days when engineers used wood and steel to construct aircraft.  In the early 1920s aluminium replaced wood and steel, which also improved aircraft design.  With advancement in technology in the aviation industry, composite materials are replacing aluminium slowly. Composite materials are both light and strong which make them a boon for aircraft manufacturers, as it helps in enhancing performance.  Composite materials in aircraft increases its life cycle as they resist damages due to corrosion and impact.   Initially composite materials were used in manufacture of military aircraft.  Now even commercial aircraft manufacturers like Boeing and Airbus are using composite materials. Companies like GE are using composite materials in manufacturing aircraft engines.   

Composite materials are combinations of two or more organic or inorganic components where each component retains its chemical properties and identity and works with other components.  They do not dissolve into each other, but they act together giving fantastic results.  To understand better composite materials can be compared to reinforced concrete, where steel and cement work together, but retain their identities.  In a composite material, one component acts as a matrix, which holds everything together and other component or components act as reinforcements.  Wood and bone are examples of natural composite materials.  Wood consists of cellulose fibers in a lignin matrix and bone consists of hydroxyapatite particles in a collagen matrix.  Epoxy resin matrix with glass fiber reinforcing is a good example of man made composite material.

In the beginning, composite materials were used only in secondary structures.  But now a days it is also used in primary structures like wings and fuselage.  Composite materials were first used in a big way in F -14 and F – 15 fighter planes.  But usage was just around 2 percent.  British Aerospace and McDonnell Douglas joined together to manufacture AV – 8B Harrier in 1981 where usage of composite materials was almost 25 percent. Now a days they have become integral part of latest technology modern military aircrafts like Sukhoi S-27 Berkut.  Lockheed F – 22 uses composite materials for around one third of its structure.  Nearly ten percent of the structural weight of Boeing 777 is composite materials.  Eurofighter also uses composite materials.  Airbus A – 380 aircraft has 16 percent of composite materials.  Boeing 7E7 Dreamliner also has substantial amount of composite materials.  

Modern day helicopters like Tiger Eurocopter EC 135 make extensive use of composite materials.  

One of the major hindrances in using composite materials is their higher costs.  But with advancement in technology and mass production, costs should come down.  Newer composite materials are being thought of and are under various stages of development all over the world.  This technology promises better aircraft to the manufactures and lesser air fares to the common man.