Concerned with improving the fuel efficiency of planes, all the major aircraft manufacturers have been moving towards the use of composite materials in place of traditional metal parts. Composites, in particular carbon fiber–reinforced plastics, are materials in which thin filaments of carbon fiber are impregnated with plastic to form thin fabrics. These fabrics may be layered in molds, aligned to ensure optimal strength, then cured to fuse and set the materials together. The resulting material is light and strong.
Spain has a long history of expertise in the use of carbon fibers. Spanish companies first gained experience creating composite parts for the European space launcher, then moved from space into aircraft. These companies continue to supply expertise and major parts to all the major aircraft manufacturers, including Boeing and Airbus. “Spain started early in the manufacturing of composite components,” says Rafael Quintana, general manager of the engineering company Sener’s aerospace business unit, “first with smaller components, and now larger ones. This is why we now have in Spain [major] manufacturers for large parts for Airbus and Boeing… That comes from a long tradition of design for this technology.”
Airbus is one of the companies that make up the multinational EADS, formed from Spain’s CASA, Germany’s DaimlerChrysler Aerospace AG, and France’s Aerospatiale Matra. Airbus has been an international pioneer, continually expanding the use of composites in its aircraft. In fact, more than 50 percent (by weight) of the company’s next generation A350s (the family of long-range widebodies) is made from composites.
Through its manufacturing and research facilities in Spain, France, and Germany, Airbus has also focused on developing both technologies to improve composite manufacturing speed and testing methods to guarantee that parts are free of defects, since problems with composite parts are often not visually obvious. The Airbus facility in Spain has concentrated on innovations in manufacturing technologies and on the assembly and testing of horizontal tailplanes and other major structural parts.
Vitoria-based Aernnova manufactures parts in both traditional metals and advanced composites for companies that include Airbus and Boeing. Amador Motos, Aernnova’s director of innovation and technology, says the company regularly invests in the application of advanced materials and the development of manufacturing technologies for composites, which play an increasingly large role in Aernnova’s business. Composite materials, points out Motos, have been used in primary and secondary structures in aircraft for decades, “but they have never been integrated into very large primary structures in commercial aviation” such as the wings and fuselage—the body—of the plane. So Aernnova, along with other leading companies and subcontractors, is “taking these processes [for manufacturing and certifying the structural integrity of the parts] and developing them for larger critical structures.”
The challenge in increasing the use of composite materials lies not only in refining manufacturing techniques, but in certifying the process for manufacturing the structures, then detecting any flaws that occur during manufacturing, or later on during operation. Unlike metals, composites often spring back to their original shape after impact, so any damage may be invisible–but still serious. Aernnova, says Motos, is investing in what’s known as Structural Health Monitoring, essentially creating a smart structure that can alert the operator to any damage to it. The company’s engineers have developed a system of sensors to detect the location of damage and determine the type of damage that may have occurred, based on a given impact or stress. The system has been tested in flight and is now in the final stages of development, which includes reduction of its size, weight, and power requirements.
Aernnova is responsible for the engineering design development, certification support and manufacturing of structures for the Horizontal Tail plane and Elevator of Airbus A350 (parts in red in the image). Source: Aernnova