The future’s bright for aluminium!

It made the first ever recorded flight possible and no aircraft would be without it today. But with the rise of composite fuselages and wings, does aluminium face an uncertain future in aviation?

The answer is a resounding no, according to ALFED, the trade association representing the British aluminium industry. It says that firms supplying the material to the big manufacturers Airbus and Boeing continue to record excellent order volumes and long term demand for aluminium is forecasted to continue well into the future as build rates for single aisle and long range aircraft continue to be ramped up. Within the UK, at its Broughton facility near Chester, Airbus manufactures wings for its A380 super jumbo aircraft. These wings are made of advanced aluminium alloys and represent the largest wing structures made for any large commercial aircraft. The wings are subsequently transferred to Toulouse for final assembly.  The company manufactures around thirty A380 aircraft per year which represents a fantastic achievement in terms of engineering, design, logistics and manufacturing technologies. To put things into perspective, each A380 is equivalent to nine A320s in terms of aluminium used. “Aluminium has enabled aircraft manufacturers to make huge technological advances, and is ultimately the key ingredient that has allowed aviation to make the world the small place it is today,” says ALFED's CEO, Will Savage. “Without the lightweight, structurally sound aircraft that aluminium has permitted, many of the long-haul as well as short-haul flights we take for granted today simply wouldn't be possible. “So we're absolutely confident that what is the most abundant metal on Earth will be in demand in aerospace for the foreseeable future. Additionally, with ongoing advances in closed loop recycling of aluminium, its environmental credentials will also prove attractive to the aerospace industry.” <Material gains> Global aerospace OEMs are pulling advanced metallic solutions for current, derivatives and next generation aircraft programmes. Even on aircraft with composite skins, such as the Boeing Dreamliner, or Airbus A350, so-called ‘plastic planes', aluminium continues to play an essential role in both fuselage and wing structure. As for the smaller Airbus A320neo (new engine option), an upgraded version of the existing A320 model, this will be built largely from metal. Boeing has made a similar decision in upgrading its competing 737 single-aisle model, the so called 737 Max. These airframes, adopting advanced aluminium alloy technologies, will further help secure the future of aluminium well into the next decade. Moving forward, perhaps the key opportunity for the aircraft manufacture is the ability to incorporate the latest technological advantages of both composite and metallic materials, to optimise design solutions as and where required. Aluminium has also been hitting the headlines for the automotive industry's sudden upswing in demand for the metal, linked to the sector's drive to meet carbon emissions targets through the fuel efficiency that comes with lighter vehicles. It is precisely this light-weighting, coupled with excellent strength, toughness and corrosion resistant advantages that aerospace manufacturers have relied on for years to help deliver great fuel efficiency, structural integrity, enhanced operational performance and lower cost. Naturally, aerospace and automotive use different grade alloys, but the principle is the same. In the UK, 20,000 people are employed directly in the aluminium manufacturing and supply sector, which has an annual turnover of £3.2 billion. The global aluminium industry reached a major milestone in 2012 when the one billionth tonne of aluminium was made. <Global demand looks East> Another driver of aircraft demand, and in turn for aluminium, is the need to satisfy the increasing passenger growth in fast growing economies such as China. Indeed, industry experts predict that around 40% of global demand for new aircraft over the next twenty years will come from the Asia-Pacific region. With this in mind we have seen a large number of well-known Western aerospace manufacturers establish manufacturing bases in China along with Airbus which has a final assembly line in Tianjin Industry experts are predicting that air traffic will double in the next 15 years at an annual growth rate of circa 4.5%. The need for improvement in fuel burn, lower maintenance cost, reduced noise and emissions will drive aircraft manufacturers to optimise design solutions. By 2025, global demand for primary aluminium is forecast to double to more than 80 million tonnes, up from 42 million tonnes in 2012. With recycling rates of 95% in the automotive and transport sector, aerospace will continue to use a mixture of new and reused material. Production of new aluminium is energy intensive, but once it has been produced it is regarded as stored energy. Recycling aluminium only requires 5% of the energy of new aluminium. For nations with high energy costs, the metal is seen as a strategic raw material and therefore the recycled product is bought for its ‘stored energy' credentials. This goes someway to explaining why 75% of all the aluminium ever produced remains in use today. Advanced aluminium alloy technologies, including the latest Al-Lithium products, will help the designer achieve such benefits by offering the best combination of lower density, improved stiffness and corrosion resistance. For Savage and ALFED's members, there's an exciting future ahead for aluminium in aviation. “Demand for aluminium in aviation remains strong and I predict it will really start to grow when orders for new players, like those in China, begin to take off,” he concludes. “Just like the automotive sector, we are certain aluminium is going to play a major role in aircraft manufacture for many years to come.”

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