And why are these advanced structural solutions important to aerospace?
Thermoplastic composites are getting a lot of attention these days as the
aerospace industry increasingly uses them to replace various metallic and
thermoset composite parts. By definition, thermoplastics are a plastic polymer
material that becomes pliable or moldable at a certain elevated temperature and
solidifies upon cooling. Thanks to their higher impact resistance, unique
processing possibilities, lightweight properties, strength and environmental
thermoplastic composites can help reduce fuel costs while increasing
environmental sustainability. Collins Aerospace is developing these advanced
materials and processes to make modern flight better, safer and more efficient
than ever before.
How thermoplastics differ from traditional composites
Unlike traditional thermoset composites – which require lengthy production
times and large, costly autoclave ovens – thermoplastics are produced
out-of-autoclave and can be stamp formed in their required shape in just a few
minutes. Whereas the forming of thermoset composites is based on solidification
through chemical reactions, thermoplastics are formed through physical
principles based on remelting and no chemical reactions are needed during its
forming processes. As a matter of fact, thermoplastics can be heat-molded and
reshaped again and again, making them recyclable and environmentally friendly.
The reduced cycle times combined with increased levels of automation provide
significant cost savings when comparing thermoplastics to thermosets. In
addition, their high durability can withstand harsh temperature conditions while
their low density and unique material characteristics can reduce the overall
weight of an aircraft, thereby increasing fuel efficiency and making them ideal
materials for aerospace components.
These new highly engineered materials, and their methods of manufacture, have
the potential to:
- Reduce manufacturing cycle time by 80 percent;
- Decrease the weight of aerospace structures by as much as 50 percent
compared with metallic solutions and up to 20 percent when compared to
thermoset solutions; and
- Incorporate sustainability improvements resulting in fewer emissions, a
fully recyclable product and lower landfill output.
“We are highly experienced at processing all existing thermoplastic composite
aerospace materials, and we are actively developing a distinctive product
portfolio for the benefit of current and future customers,” said David Manten,
general manager of Engineered Thermoplastics for Collins Aerospace. “Our
technology roadmap will enable us to expand from thermoplastic composite detail
parts to fully integrated structures, and from commercial and military aircraft
to urban air mobility and beyond.”
In-house manufacturing provides multiple benefits capabilities
Today, Collins Aerospace produces more than 2,000 different thermoplastic
composite parts with hundreds of parts currently in qualification. Parts can be
found on the fuselage, wing, tailplane, nacelles, flight control surfaces and
doors, and are currently supplied to 20 different types of aircraft ranging from
widebodies to single aisle, and business jets to helicopter platforms.
Because Collins’ thermoplastic composite manufacturing is retained in-house,
the company is providing customers with solutions that meet shorter lead times,
are weight optimized and competitively priced. Using state-of-the-art machinery,
automation and lean manufacturing principles, Collins’ production is suited for
very small series of just a few straightforward parts, up to high-volume complex
parts consisting of hundreds of parts per day.
In conjunction with its investments in material advancements and production
automation, Collins also has extensive partnerships with well-known
universities, associations and consortiums who are specialized in thermoplastic
composites, robotics and manufacturing to ensure continued developments and
innovation. The company has the capacity to process both carbon and glass
reinforced thermoplastic pre-peg systems (fabric and UD tape) using
polyphenylene sulfide (PPS), polyetheretherketone (PEEK), polyetherimide (PEI),
polyetherketoneketone (PEKK) and low-melt polyaryletherketones (PAEK) resin.
“Going forward, we’ll be expanding our capabilities to bring thermoplastic
composites to larger, more complex and integrated aerostructures,” Manten said.
“We are continually innovating to make sure our materials, tooling concepts,
process capabilities and automation are leading the industry.”