How Aluminum Got Dethroned by Thermoplastics in Aerospace

 

Cup holders. Magazines. Suit cases. Aircraft engines. Here’s a riddle, what do these items all have in common? If you’re an aircraft operator, the answer is obvious: they all add weight, making them a drain on your fuel costs.

 

If weight is one of the main operating costs of an aircraft, then it’s no surprise that airlines want to lose a few pounds. Over the last 35 years, AIP has witnessed firsthand the incredible weight savings that can be gained from using lightweight polymers and composites for aerospace applications.

 

How Airlines “Slim Down” Operating Costs

 

How much can an ounce cost you? Plenty. In the case of United Airlines, removing a single ounce from its in-flight magazine has translated to saving $290,000 a year. Yes, a single ounce can hit an airline with up to six digits in costs.

 

If thinner paper can have such an impact on your bottom line, then you can imagine the significant cost savings that can come from manufacturing lighter aerospace components. What’s the most lightweight solution for aircraft operators today? We have one word for you: plastics.

 

What Makes Plastics the Secret to Aircraft Fuel-Efficiency

 

Aluminum was popular during the “Golden Age of Aviation” because of its strength and durability as well as its lightness when compared to other metals like steel. As a result, many aircraft components have traditionally been metal, from aircraft interiors, to landing gear, aircraft engines and structural components.

 

Now consider the fact that polymer and composite materials can be up to ten times lighter than metal. It’s no wonder that as more thermoplastic materials come on the market and new manufacturing opportunities arise, metal replacement has been seen as one of the best opportunities to reduce airline weight.

 

How big is the impact of switching from aluminum to plastic parts like PEEK and ULTEM in aerospace applications? Operators can earn weight savings of up to 60%. This translates to lower lifetime fuel costs, reduced emissions and extended flight range for operators.

 

“Weighing” the Option of Plastics in Aerospace

 

Weight alone is a massive reason to consider thermoplastics for aerospace, but weight isn’t the only factor at play in material selection.

 

After all, wood is lighter than metal, but there’s a reason we don’t build spruce airframes like the first plane from the Wright brothers: it wouldn’t be safe today to fly a wooden plane! Aerospace components need to be able to survive in corrosive, harsh environments as well as provide resistance to high temperatures.

 

In other words, it’s crucial that your mission-critical components aren’t just lightweight, but also high-performing.

 

At AIP, we carefully apply our decades of material expertise to select the right material for your application’s needs. Remember that your aerospace plastics manufacturer should understand the unique demands of your industry and your application, and have experience machining the material you require.

 

Want to learn more about how AIP reduces costs for aircraft operators?

Read how machined polymer components can take a load off aircraft interiors in our aerospace case study.

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When design engineers need a custom-machined component for a project, many consider metals first for their strength and durability.  However, this is not the case anymore; metals are moving over as polymers and composites become a more sensible alternative for precision-machined, high-strength durable parts.  This is true across many industries, but especially in the aerospace and defense sectors.  In this article, we will explore the benefits of opting for a plastic material for mission-critical aerospace and defense parts.

 

Overall Benefits

 

Machined polymer and composite components are the most cost-effective solution compared to metal.

 

First, machined plastic parts are lighter and, therefore, provide immense advantages over metals by offering lower lifetime freight costs for equipment that is regularly transported or handled over the product’s lifetime. Furthermore, polymers allow lower power motors for moving parts due to lower frictional properties of polymer wear components compared to metals. The low frictional properties preserve the integrity of the part as well, which translates to less maintenance-related downtime. What does this mean for operators?  Equipment remains online longer doing what it’s supposed to do – produce profit and functionality.  Not only are plastics lighter, but they’re also less expensive than many raw metal materials used for parts. Plastics can be produced in faster cycles than metals, which helps keep manufacturing costs down as well.

 

At AIP, we can machine and deliver parts in as little as 10 business days.

 

Explore AIP’s Machining Capabilities

 

Plastics are more resistant to chemicals than their metal counterparts.

 

Without extensive and costly secondary finishes and coatings, metals are easily attacked by many common chemicals. Corrosion due to moisture or even dissimilar metals in close contact is also a major concern with metal components. Polymer and composite materials such as PEEK, Kynar, Teflon, and Polyethylene are impervious to some of the harshest chemicals. This allows for the manufacture and use of precision fluid handling components in the chemical and processing industries.  These parts would otherwise dissolve if they were manufactured from metal materials. Some polymer materials available for machining can withstand temperatures over 700°F (370°C).

 

Plastic parts do not require post-treatment finishing efforts, unlike metal.

 

Polymer and composites are both thermally and electrically insulating. Metallic components require special secondary processing and coating in order to achieve any sort of insulating properties. These secondary processes add cost to metallic components without offering the level of insulation offered by polymer materials. Plastic and composite components are also naturally corrosion resistant and experience no galvanic effects in a dissimilar metal scenario that require sheathing. Additionally, plastic materials are compounded with color before machining, eliminating the need for post-treatment finishing efforts such as painting.

 

Aerospace and Defense benefits graphic
 

 

Benefits to the Aerospace & Defense Sector

 

Polymers bring many advantages to the aerospace and defense industry, particularly in the form of weight-saving capabilities.  Let’s take a closer look at the benefits of precision machined mission-critical components.

 

  • Lightweight: Polymer and composite materials are up to ten times lighter than typical metals. A reduction in the weight of parts can have a huge impact on an aerospace company’s bottom line. For every pound of weight reduced on a plane, the airline can realize up to $15k per year in fuel cost reduction.

 

  • Corrosion-Resistant: Plastic materials handle far better than metals in chemically harsh environments. This increases the lifespan of the aircraft and avoids costly repairs brought about by corroding metal components an in-turn reducing MRO downtime provides for more operational time per aircraft per year.

 

  • Insulating and Radar Absorbent: Polymers are naturally radar-absorbent as well as thermally and electrically insulating.

 

  • Flame & Smoke Resistances: High-performance thermoplastics meet the stringent flame and smoke resistances required for aerospace applications.

 

Aerospace and Defense benefits graphic
 

Other Benefits for Aerospace and Defense

 

  • High Tensile Strength: Several lightweight thermoplastics can match the strength of metals, making them perfect for airplane equipment metal part replacement.

 

  • Flexibility & Impact Resistance: Polymers are resistant to impact damage, making them less prone to denting or cracking the way that metals do.

 

Plastics have a variety of unique attributes which place them above metals in terms of utility, cost-effectiveness and flexibility for precision-machined mission-critical components.  To learn more, search specific plastic materials and their applications per industry with our useful material search function.

 

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Key Moments in Aircraft & Aerospace Innovation

 

Aviation technology has come a long way to get to where it is today. Over the course of the last century countless test flights, thousands of blueprints, and endless research from passionate minds have propelled the evolution of aircraft and aerospace technologies. Read on to discover how aviation materials have shifted to create a better, safer, and more efficient flight experience.

 

The Pioneers of Aviation

 

For much of human history, we have been fascinated with taking flight. The ancient Greeks contemplated sprouting wings in myths like Icarus and Daedalus – the boy who flew too close to the sun with wax and feather wings. Leonardo Da Vinci sketched flying machines that were way ahead of Renaissance times. It all came to fruition in 1857 when Félix du Temple de la Croix, a French Naval officer, received a patent for a flying machine. By 1874, he had developed a lightweight steam-powered monoplane which flew short distances under its own power after takeoff from a ski-jump.  Finally, in 1903, the Wright Brothers made the first controlled, powered, and sustained flight near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The Wright Flyer featured a lightweight aluminum engine, wood and steel construction, and a fabric wing warping. According to the U.S. Smithsonian Institution, the Wright brothers accomplished the “world’s first successful flights of a powered heavier-than-air flying machine.”

 

 

Just 12 years later, the first all-metal airplane (Junkers J1), built by Hugo Junkers (1859-1935), took flight in 1915. Previously, aircraft experts believed that airplanes can only fly with light materials such as wood, struts, tension wires, and canvas. Junkers thought differently and believed that heavier materials like metal were necessary to transport passengers and goods.

 

The Golden Age

 

The Roaring 20’s ushered in airplane racing competitions, which led aircraft designers to focus on performance. Innovators, such as Howard Hughes, found that monoplanes (aircraft with one pair of wings) were more aerodynamic in comparison to biplanes, and that frames made with aluminum alloys were capable of withstanding extraordinary pressures and stresses. Due to its lightweight properties, aluminum also made its way into the internal fittings of the aircraft decreasing the weight and allowing for a more fuel-efficient design.

 

In 1925, Henry Ford acquired the Stout Metal Airplane Company, utilizing the all-metal design principles proposed by Hugo Junkers, Ford developed the Ford Trimotor, nicknamed the “Tin Goose.” The “Tin Goose” propelled the race to design safe and reliable engines for airline travel. A few years later, Henry Ford’s Trimotor NC8407 became the first airplane flown by Eastern Air Transport, a leading domestic airline in the 1930s flying routes from New York to Florida. This positioned metal as the primary material for domestic aircraft, and eventually military applications with the onset of WWII.

 

 

Plastic’s Mettle: Wartime Materials Take Flight

 

By the 1930’s, the use of wood became obsolete and all-metal aircrafts were produced for their durability. Imperial Airways, known today as British Airways, made headway in the air travel industry with advertisements of luxury and adventure to cross borders. However, those borders were sealed off with the breakout of WWII. In 1939, Imperial Airways, a private commercial airline, was ordered to operate from a military standpoint at Bristol Airport.  Across the Atlantic, engineers focused their efforts on building aircraft meant specifically for military strategy – strength, durability, agility, and weaponry.  The Boeing P-26 “Peashooter” entered service with the United States Army Air Corps as the first all-metal and low-wing monoplane fighter aircraft. Known for its speed and maneuverability, the small but feisty P-26 formed the core of pursuit squadrons throughout the United States.

 

 

In times of war, there are often significant advancements in material usage, weaponry, and machinery. World War II was no different. Plastics entered the scene during World War II, starting with the replacement of metal parts for rubber parts in U.S. aircraft after Japan limited metal trade with the United States. Following that, plastics of higher grades began to replace electrical insulators and mechanical components such as gears, pulleys, and fasteners. Aircraft manufacturers began to replace aluminum parts with plastics as they were lighter and thus more fuel efficient than aluminum.

 

The Race for Space

 

Lighter and more fuel efficient were the key words following World War II as nations turned their attention to the skies and beyond. The space program in the 1960’s brought together illustrious minds to solve the seemingly impossible feat of being the first country to put mankind on the moon, thus, the great race for space began. Aircraft were now going beyond the sky and NASA scientists knew they were dealing with new territory in aero innovation. They needed a material that could break the Earth’s atmosphere and carry a hefty amount of fuel, while protecting the spacecraft’s crew from extreme temperatures. NASA scientists turned to plastics, specifically Kevlar and nylon. Layers of nylon and other insulators were wrapped under the body of the spacecraft to protect the crew from the extreme temperatures of space. Both of these plastics are still staples in the aerospace industry – keeping the Hubble telescope and many other satellites scanning humanity’s charted and uncharted expanse.

 

 

Plastics of the Future

 

Plastics continue to lead the future of materials in aerospace and aviation industries for their durability, precision, and ingenuity. For example, in 2009, the 787-8 Dreamliner made its first maiden flight, becoming the first aircraft to have wings and fuselage made from carbon-fiber plastics. Besides being lightweight, plastics offered increased safety with their resistance to high impact, and their proven ability to withstand chemically harsh environments. This proved plastics an invaluable material when compared to alternative material choices like glass or metal.

 

 

Starting in the 1970s, plastics began to play a more crucial part in the defense and military industry, especially in stealth aircraft. The U.S. Air Force saw the potential of plastics when they learned that plastics could absorb radar waves. The added benefit of reduced radar signature makes plastics ideal for creating stealthy aircraft. Plastics continue to contribute to innovation in the defense industry, especially with stealth fabrics and other composite materials which can virtually create invisibility to radars in the near future.

 

Aside from plastics becoming increasingly popular for use in the defense and military sector, high grade plastics like PEEK are highly favorable for space travel due to its ability to function in hostile environments, critical in space exploration. Plastics are even being researched for lightweight radiation shielding for the International Space Station and flights to Mars.

 

At AIP, we’re proud to be a continued part of aviation and aerospace advancements and we look forward to engineering solutions for the next frontier. In fact, at the time this article was written, we are AS9100D:2016 certified, which means we meet the high-quality standards of applications in the aerospace industry. In addition, we are also ISO 13485:2016, ISO 9000:2015, FDA audited, and ITAR certified. Above call, we strive to create genuine relationships with our customers to deliver mission critical components with promise. To learn how we can help you, contact us today.

 

Interested to learn more? Read “Plastics in Aerospace: The Secret to Fuel-Efficient Aircraft

 

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