The aviation industry is currently undergoing a major transformation. Aircraft today are heavy, use too much fuel and create a large carbon footprint. Naturally, operators want them to fly cleaner, more efficiently and faster while still reducing the cost of flying for passengers. To achieve such futuristic models and the future of making things, manufacturers are turning to more radical solutions and emerging technologies, beginning with examining ways to use new materials and manufacturing solutions. These new technologies will unlock the full potential for manufacturers to create new designs that meet the growing demands of passengers and make travelling faster and more affordable.
New materials have been used in military aircrafts for over 20 years, but have only relatively recently been used in mainstream passenger plane production. Boeing's 787 Dreamliner design, for example, uses lightweight carbon fibre composites, which saves an average of 20% of weight compared to previous designs. The introduction of aluminium fuselages for commercial aircraft also decreases weight, resulting in improved fuel economy and reduced emissions. This decrease in weight allows for increased pressurisation, improving the flying experience for passengers and reducing jet lag.
However, to advance the designs further, companies need to understand how these materials can be manipulated. The materials we use to make aircraft no longer need to be homogenous; they can have a multifaceted quality to them. Simply replacing one material with another doesn’t provide the greatest benefit, as each component often requires specific properties that are unique to the material. For example, carbon fibre material could work well for the shafts and struts, but manufacturers face the challenge of finding ways to attach it to other metal parts in the final design.
To get around this, manufacturers are experimenting with new techniques to combine materials. These processes are still in the earliest stages of development, but involve creating objects from layers of different materials. For example, starting at one end that is made up purely of metal, manufacturers can introduce composite material as the layers build, whilst slowly decreasing the atoms of metal until eventually you get to a pure composite at the other end. Building the parts atom by atom will enable manufacturers to produce completely different parts and components. They will also be able to integrate electrical properties into each component, which could provide the planes with new capabilities such as an integrated de-icing system.
Finding the right tools
To take full advantage of these new materials and travel faster, further and more cost effectively, manufacturers also need to look at new ways of designing. They must learn how to use these processes and adopt cutting-edge solutions and new tools. Finding the right solutions to produce revolutionary designs will provide designers with new possibilities and freedom.
One of the tools already available to designers and manufacturers is generative design. This technology can support designers with computers creating initial designs based on criteria such as weight, strength, cost, materials and size. It enables engineers to input these constraints and the end goal of the product and automatically generate the optimal solution for that problem. By looking at how materials can influence the designs and manipulating them with cutting-edge technologies, manufacturers are able to create innovative geometrical shapes with hybrid combinations of composites and metal materials for lighter and stronger aircraft components.
One example is Autodesk’s collaboration with Airbus to create the world’s largest 3D printed aircraft cabin component, which at 30kg, is 45% lighter than current designs. The structurally-strong, but lightweight micro-lattice shape was created with Autodesk’s generative design software and then produced using additive manufacturing techniques. It is estimated to save up to 465,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions per year, which is the equivalent of taking about 96,000 passenger cars off the road for one year.
This future of making things will enable manufacturers to additively manufacture entire parts. New high rate deposition processes – such as layered or laser assisted manufacturing that generate fully functional components from CAD files – will replace forging and casting in aircraft production and enable manufacturers to produce a near-final shape. This technique can reduce detailed machining to a minimum, reducing the amount of raw material required and waste generated and as a result, dramatically reduce costs, weight and manufacturing time. It will also enable the designers to come up with unique designs, thanks to the exceptional levels of flexibility that advancements in design and manufacturing software technology can bring.
We are only at the beginning of an exciting journey towards these new designs and still have to fully embrace and understand the potential of the new materials to turn this vision into a reality. However, with such rapid technological advancements readily available on the market, commercial planes can very soon be transformed to be more environmentally friendly, and provide a better passenger experience. After all, the industry went from basic wooden aircraft to the complex steel and aluminium machines that we see in the air today in less than a century. And once manufacturers master these new techniques, the next wave in the future of air travel will become reality.