Metalmakers fighting off composites

There has been much talk about the inroads composite materials have been making into the aerospace supply chain. The recently certified A350, for example, contains more composite materials than metal – 53 per cent by weight compared with 47 per cent.

But the metalmakers have not taken this intrusion into their market lying down and are now fighting back with a new generation of metal alloys that they say are lighter, stronger and easier to maintain than composites.

And their confidence seems boundless. Yesterday (October 2) metals giant Alcoa – which recently signed a $1bn deal with Boeing to supply aluminium products including wing skins – opened the world’s largest aluminium-lithium (Al-Li) plant.

The new facility in Lafayett, Indiana can produce more than 20,000 tonnes of Al-Li annually, and is just one of a series of recent expansions for Alcoa.

The metal producer has also expanded its Al-Li capabilities at its technical centre near Pittsburgh and its Kitts Green facility in the UK, and in May, the company announced a $100m development at its LaPorte, Indiana facility where it will produce nickel-based superalloy jet engine parts.

Meanwhile, its competitor Aleris has this week received confirmation from Bombardier that the OEM will accept aluminium products produced at its new plant in Zhenjiang, China. Aleris claims the $350m plant is the first in the Asia Pacific region to receive such approval from a major aircraft OEM.

And in April, fellow Al-Li producer Constellium confirmed it was investing $120m in building two new casthouses to manufacture its “Airware” alloy, as well as facilities to recycle the material. The two plants are expected open in 2015 and 2016 respectively and will significantly ramp up production of the aerospace material.

Clearly, metalmakers are convinced that their new aluminium alloys can beat off the stiff competition posed by advanced carbon fibre and ceramic composites.

Alcoa, for example, claims its Al-Li materials offer a 10 per cent weight saving over composites on a single-aisle aircraft fuselage and “lower the cost to manufacture, operate and maintain aircraft by up to 30 percent versus composite-intensive aircraft”.

“The future of aviation is being built with aluminum-lithium,” said Klaus Kleinfeld, Alcoa’s CEO.

Carbon fibre manufacturer Hexcel would no doubt question that assertion, announcing this week that it is spending $250m on building a new production plant to meet growing demand from aircraft OEMs.

It seems that the battle between metal and composite suppliers is just getting started.

Read more about the advances in metals for the aerospace sector in David Cook’s article in issue 132 of Aircraft Technology, Engineering and Maintenance, which will be published on October 24.

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