Future materials: aluminum lithium, standard metals or composities
The Farnborough Air Show isn’t just about orders, though these get all the sex and headlines.
While we weren’t at the show, we had a telephone interview with a company called Constellium, previously known as Alcan. Constellium spoke at the February conference of the Pacific Northwest Aerospace Alliance, with which we are involved. We were particularly interested in talking with Constellium because it is a major supplier of Aluminum-Lithium, an alternative material to standard aluminum and a competing material to composites.
Constellium’s Al-Li combines other processes, including a design for recycling, and is named AirWare. Airbus, Boeing and Bombardier are among their key customers, and it is Constellium that is providing the materials for the CSeries. It’s also a supplier on the Airbus A350 (internal components, not the fuselage).
As Airbus and Boeing looked at the A320neo and 737 MAX, and as Boeing is looking at the 777X, we asked them about the prospect of using Al-Li. This is lighter than standard aluminum, more durable, less susceptible to corrosion and enabled 12 years between major maintenance overhauls compared with the 6-8 years now.
But Al-Li is more difficult to work with than standard aluminum. Boeing’s Mike Bair told us in an interview that Boeing considered Al-Li back in the 1990s when designing the 777 but it was too difficult and costly to manufacture. Since then, he praised the producers for strides. There are mixed reports what material will be used for the 777X fuselage: standard metal or Al-Li. The Seattle Times reported the airplane will have Al-Li. We’ve been told it won’t. But with the airplane still months and perhaps a year from launch, there is plenty of time to decide.
Airbus, in an interview at the Paris Air Show last year, said it was evaluating Al-Li for the A320neo. The A320ceo is heavier than the competing Boeing 737 and the re-engine adds about 4,000 lbs. Using Al-Li would mitigate some of this weight. We haven’t heard if Airbus might go ahead with Al-Li, but we’re leaning toward concluding that it won’t.
Boeing told us it will not switch to Al-Li for the MAX because the manufacturing process is just enough different that it would add complexity and cost to the current tooling and procedures.
Al-Li vs composites is a competition that will likely be fierce when it comes time for Airbus and Boeing to design the next clean-sheet airplanes, presumed to be the New Small Airplane, or replacement for the current 737/A320 class. (Boeing may have a new clean-sheet for the 757 class; it has a New Airplane Study underway for this, but the market may be too narrow when one considers the 737-9 MAX and A321neo will do 95% of what a 757 can do.)
Composites, selected for the 787 and A350 XWB fuselages and wings, offer advantages over standard metal fuselages that have been well documented and need not be repeated here. But Airbus and Boeing question the efficiency and benefits of down-scaling composites to 737/A320 category airplanes. Boeing apparently became convinced: Jim Albaugh, former CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, said the New Small Airplane would have been composite, but the ability to produce it at a rate of 60 per month remained a challenge. Boeing went with the MAX instead.
Vistagy, a composite manufacturer near Boston, told us nearly two years ago, that the down-scaling challenges were met and that production rates were the issue. Autoclaves are very costly and so is the manufacturing process. There is actually less industrial waste than traditional aluminum manufacturing, but the materials are generally more hazardous—though there have been strides on this score.
This is the background that intrigued us when we had the opportunity to speak with Constellium’s Simon Laddychuk, VP of Manufacturing Global Aerospace and Director of Technology.
Leeham News: How are the suppliers going to meet the huge ramp-ups announce by Airbus and Boeing and still meet the additional demands of Bombardier (for CSeries), Mitsubishi (for MRJ), COMAC (for C919) and Irkut (for MS-21)?
Simon Laddychuk: It’s very important for our customers (Airbus and Boeing) and their customers to get airplanes reliably. We’ve been investing in our supply chain and capabilities to be sure we will be at the required rate at the required time. Also investing in our people and our supply chain tools, [in a way] similar to auto industry.
Please put into context: how much is Constellium investing and compare this with the revenues of the aerospace division.
The Constellium division has $1bn in revenues and has an investment in infrastructure of the supply chain of E200m in 2008-2012.
What will prompt the airframe OEMs to choose AirWare or standard metals or composites?
The final solution by Airbus and Boeing decides upon for any given airframe will be their decision. These will be hybrid airplanes. AirWare is new technology. We’re working with all the technologies across the product range to have the ability to respond. Want to assure to de-risk the introduction of new products.
What is AirWare?
AirWare is a technology that allows up to 25% weight reduction and full recycling from cradle to grave. We can get back all the key components from AirWare. It is easy to use and it is lighter. AirWare is different from standard aluminum. Properties of AirWare are much more corrosion resistant and improve fatigue resistance. We can change the major maintenance frequency up to 12 years vs 6-8 year horizons.
AirWare is combined with other processes, combining recycling, without losing any Al-Li in the process. Instead of using rivets, we can perhaps using bonded solutions in wings. It is a suite of technologies. We have ongoing research in place for bonding for fuselage, but [it’s not offered] yet.
You referred to ‘hybrid aircraft.’ What do you mean by this?
Hybrid aircraft use of different materials in different applications. Materials that are mixed together in new ways.
Can Airbus or Boeing effect rolling changes to use AirWare for the A320neo and 737 MAX?
All of our customers are interested in exploring the possibilities for our solutions. I think the opportunities for AirWare are all encompassing. It can be used for new aircraft and existing aircraft and upgrades. We continue to work on the options for requests we get from all our customers. But we are not working actively [on an A320neo solution] today.
- Of some interest to those of us who live in the Seattle area, Belgian’s ASCO Design Center USA is expanding in Mukilteo with a new engineering center.
- Alabama says it offered $156m in economic incentives to Airbus and that this was “expensive.” (???!!!!) This is pretty damn cheap, actually. South Carolina and localities offered up a reported $1bn to Boeing for 787 Line 2. Washington State in 2003 offered $3.2bn to Boeing over 20 years. Alabama got off easy.