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Study Highlights Challenges in Aerospace Composites

23 July 2006

The need to establish first tier aerospace carbon fibre component suppliers and boost training in composites manufacture in North West England is highlighted in the findings of a new study released recently.

The rapidly accelerating switch to carbon fibre composites presents both threats and opportunities for the region’s aerospace cluster, the study reveals.

The region, and the UK as a whole, has pockets of specialist composites manufacturing, capacity and capabilities, which do not match up to the scale required by an industry progressing rapidly from traditional precision engineered metal components to lighter weight composites.

With up to 50 per cent of next generation military and civil aircraft structures likely to be composite, the North West Aerospace Alliance (NWAA) conducted a detailed study of the region’s industry funded by the Northwest Regional Development Agency (NWDA). The study was aimed at identifying where the sector is now and where it needs to be and was completed with the assistance of a working group drawn from experts and stakeholders in the regional composites capability.

The report identifies the need to develop and manage skills in composite manufacturing from initial design through to manufacture and for the development of more “net-shape” processes where components emerge ready for use, rather than requiring further treatments or machining.

It also focuses on the need for processes requiring low labour content, to allow the region’s companies to compete with manufacturers in countries with lower labour costs and points towards greater exploitation of the North West’s capabilities in advanced industrial textiles.

Speaking at Farnborough International Airshow, Dr Neil Calder, of the North West Aerospace Alliance: “The picture in the North West at present shows we have capabilities and expertise in composites but it is fragmented and does not form an integrated and cohesive supply chain. We have looked at where the industry needs to be in 10 to15 year’s time to establish what technologies are likely to dominate and what we need to invest in.

“We have certain advantages, such as expertise in advanced textiles, in the North West, which can be harnessed to restore our competitive edge further along the line. These include the possibility of merging technologies to produce more complex 3D composite components using advanced knitting processes and other techniques.”

The NWAA says the existence of more than 40 specialist industrial textile companies in the region, together with higher education research bodies including the UMARI – the University of Manchester Aerospace Research Institute – could provide the springboard for future development of the North West composites sector.

Adds NWAA Executive Director Martin Wright: “It is abundantly clear that our composites capability needs investment in capability, skills and smarter, leaner methods of manufacture. We believe this is also reflected in the UK composites market as a whole, where competition from overseas for new contracts is extremely tough.”

Mark Hughes, NWDA Executive Director of Enterprise, Innovation and Skills, said: “The Northwest is a major force in the aerospace industry and in order to maintain this, it is vital that we continue to invest in research and development to ensure that we remain at the forefront of advances in the sector. This key study, which looks at the increasing importance of composite manufacturing, highlights the need to develop new technologies in composites in order to stay ahead in the aerospace sector. The NWDA has already recognised this, which is why we invested £2.1 million to create the Northwest Composite Centre at the University of Manchester, which will carry out cutting edge research into composite materials and will play a key role in improving the region’s capabilities in this area. The findings of this study are another key step in ensuring that the region remains a global leader in the aerospace industry.”






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