Building the perfect beast

Carmelo Lo Faro, president of Solvay’s Composite Materials Global Business Unit and Hans Bruckner, CEO of GKN Aerospace’s Fokker Business sign agreement at the 2017 Paris Air Show

Mike Richardson attended Solvay’s press conference held at this year’s Paris Airshow to hear about the company’s strategy for increasing its aerospace presence in order to help industrialise the composites production process.

Announcements of products specified on the Lockheed Martin F-35, COMAC C919 and the Irkut MS-21 to name a few, along with its recent MOU with GKN Aerospace’s Fokker division to industrialise thermoplastic materials, plus the doubling of its Toulouse kitting capabilities to meet the increasing production rate of large composite parts sees Solvay making bold strides in reinforcing its position as a key partner to the aerospace industry.

During a press conference held at this year’s Paris Airshow, Roger Kearns, Solvay’s executive committee member, advanced materials and Carmelo Lo Faro, president of Solvay’s Composite Materials Global Business Unit (GBU), quickly dealt with the proverbial elephant in the room, i.e. why Solvay acquired Cytec. The explanation is a simple one: it’s the best thing that could have happened to Cytec because Solvay brings its considerable business size, technological capabilities, an established industrial ethos and its proven competence to take the aerospace industry to new heights.

“Solvay has a strong speciality polymer business that for many years has touched on a number of markets whilst working towards building an advanced materials cluster,” Kearns begins. “Two years ago, we decided to acquire Cytec for its composite materials aerospace expertise. Part of our aim was to build a bridge between Solvay’s experience in thermoplastics and Cytec’s vast knowledge of composite materials. Over the last 18 months we’ve moved quickly to integrate the Cytec team into Solvay and we have now co-located the headquarters of the composite materials business and our speciality polymers centre in Atlanta, US.

“As of today, we are focused on sustainability: lightweight materials form a huge part of this equation, but what is equally important is the ability to create the application and the use of materials to make this all work. The entire industry is pushing hard to lower cost, so we need to satisfy this demand, create solutions that meet customer needs and drive the industrialisation of the production process.”

In 2012, Solvay – at the time Cytec – was awarded a long-term agreement to supply high-performance, structural composite and adhesive materials for the COMAC C919 commercial aircraft via the Shanghai Aircraft Manufacturing Company, who is responsible for the C919 aircraft’s manufacture.

In total, nine prepreg specifications and seven adhesive specifications were qualified with Solvay products for the C919 programme and were used across the aircraft’s structure. Solvay’s CYCOM 977-2 and CYCOM X850 prepregs, toughened epoxy materials were utilised on the horizontal stabiliser, rear pressure bulkhead, aileron and flaps. CYCOM 970 and CYCOM 7701, two epoxy prepregs producing void-free honeycomb sandwich and monolithic structures were respectively used on the rudder, elevator, winglets, spoiler, wing-to-body fairings and on the radome. Various adhesives for metal and composite bonding were also selected.

“As well as the COMAC C919, the Irkut MS-21 made by Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation (UAC) also recently completed its first test flight,” states Lo Faro. “Solvay has a significant presence on both these programmes with a majority share, and we’ve provided some really interesting technologies – particularly on the MS-21. Both aircraft programmes are undergoing production ramp up rates over the coming years.

“So, the name of the game today for the aerospace industry is industrialisation. Think about the next new aircraft programme and it will be all about industrialised production. The aerospace sector isn’t at the same industrialisation stage as the automotive industry. Our strategy is to use this technology capability to really help a young technology in a young industry get to the next stage.”

Solvay has a significant presence on the Irkut MS-21 made by Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation

The age of thermoplastics

And getting to this next stage has seen Solvay and GKN Aerospace’s Fokker business team accelerate the adoption of thermoplastic composite materials on aircraft. Under the agreement, Solvay and Fokker will combine their expertise to advance technological developments in thermoplastic composite materials as well as improve processes and cost competitiveness. Both businesses have complementary materials expertise in thermoplastic polymers and fibre-reinforced composites. Fokker also brings leadership in component design and manufacturing, to translate the technology into innovative solutions for aerospace customers.

“The GKN Fokker MOU is an example of how we’re putting our strategy into practice,” continues Lo Faro. “Thermoplastics is a new technology but isn’t dominant by any means. Today’s new aircraft programmes contain many composite parts, but very few thermoplastic ones. And yet, thermoplastics technology has the potential to get these programmes to high production rates.

“When combined with fibre, a thermoplastic material has the ability to produce a form very quickly – it doesn’t need to ‘cook’ in an autoclave like traditional CFRP materials. Many flying parts on today’s aircraft are cured in huge autoclaves, whereas the MS-21’s wing – which performed its first flight last May – is constructed using our unique technology that allows customers like Irkut to manufacture flying parts outside of a traditional pressure cooker environment. This saves lots of money and offers a more efficient way of producing the parts.”

Shapes of things to come

According to Lo Faro, the beauty of composite materials is that customers can make any shape they want. There are many more degrees of freedom when using composite materials – shapes that are impossible to achieve using traditional metals.

“Composite materials have only been in existence in the last forty years, so it’s still a fairly young technology. However, it’s been adopted extremely quickly and offers huge potential and opportunities. Whilst airframers use composite materials primarily to save weight, they also use them because some aircraft components cannot be made efficiently using metal.

“The advantage is that designers can change the fibrous properties of a composite part. We are in the digital age with the ability to use a huge amount of computational power. Combine this with a material offering so many degrees of design freedom, and you have a clear reason why there is so much potential for composites.”

Lo Faro ends by suggesting that composites technology has still got a lot of room for improvement, and that Solvay’s strategy is to ensure it can provide every single type of composites technology.

“We provide very different material chemistries and product forms which enable our customers to use them to manufacture parts,” he concludes. “We have the design competence that allows our people to bring the materials to the next stage.

“With composites, you create the material as you make the part. This requires competence and understanding in tying together the design and manufacturing and this is something that Solvay excels in.”

Michael Tyrrell :Digital Coordinator