As the aerospace industry takes off in Texas, composite manufacturing is on the rise in the state. Composite materials play a large role in aerospace manufacturing, as they are lightweight and durable, helping to improve aircraft performance.
With the important role composites play in aerospace, it’s no wonder composite manufacturing is becoming more prominent within the state. Several large aerospace companies — including Lockheed Martin, Southwest and American airlines, and Boeing — have offices in Texas. Additionally, the Lone Star State is home to the first commercial launch site, owned by SpaceX.
Aerospace is clearly a major industry in Texas. Throughout the state, aerospace and aviation employ 148,000 Texans at more than 1,400 facilities. Additionally, Texas higher education institutions are focused on driving innovation within aerospace, spending more than $5 billion annually on research and development. With such an investment into aerospace, the growth of composite manufacturing in the region comes as no surprise.
What Is Composite Manufacturing?
Composite manufacturing involves merging the properties of two or more materials by physically combining those materials. The resulting new material, known as a composite, is made up of a base material and a reinforcement material. A composite’s physical attributes will be similar to its base material, while its reinforcement material helps to make the composite more durable.
The process of composite manufacturing is meant to make a new material that is more durable than the individual materials that combine to create it. In addition to having added strength, composites are lightweight and can help to improve product performance. They are also a more economical material, as composite manufacturing reduces fabrication costs, lowering production costs in the process.
Composite Materials Within the Aerospace Industry
Common composites include fiberglass, reinforced concrete, carbon fiber, and plywood. Within the aerospace industry, carbon fiber and fiberglass are commonly used. Other composites used in aerospace manufacturing are carbon nanotubes, ceramic matrix composites (CMCs), and metal matrix composites (MMCs).
Carbon nanotubes use carbon fiber as a base material because of its durable properties, but carbon nanotubes are more flexible than carbon fiber on its own. Within aerospace, carbon nanotubes are a more economical material for manufacturing aircraft wings. This composite can also be used for electromagnetic shielding.
Ceramic materials aren’t often used for high-tech applications because the material isn’t strong enough. However, when combined to make a composite material, ceramics are useful because of their thermal capabilities. The heat-resistant properties of CMCs make them effective for building aircraft engines.
The base material of MMCs is metal, which is combined with a reinforced material to create this composite. A metal matrix may not be as lightweight as other composite matrixes, but it is durable. MMCs are still undergoing research, but in the future these composites could be used for engine and helicopter blades.
Benefits of Composite Manufacturing in Aerospace
Aircrafts need to be lightweight but durable, with powerful engines. Aerospace engineers are continually looking for ways to improve aircraft to meet these standards without compromising quality. This is one reason composite materials are so prevalent in the aerospace industry.
Aside from being light and durable, the greatest quality of composites is that they are versatile — there are many different types of composites. Additionally, researchers and engineers are always experimenting with how to improve composites and creating new composite materials to meet the needs of multiple manufacturing industries.
Some composites are heat-resistant, some have high damage tolerances, and others have great impact resistance. Many composite materials are also less susceptible to corrosion than the traditional metal alloys used in aircraft, and they’re good at withstanding the pressure of high altitudes.
Plus, composites are useful for more than the manufacturing and design phase of aircraft. Composite materials help to make aircraft safer and more efficient, improving the flying experience for passengers and pilots. All of these factors contribute to the reason composite manufacturing is so beneficial to the aerospace industry.
The Future of Composite Manufacturing in Aerospace
Since composite materials create significant opportunities to improve aircraft design and performance, aerospace researchers are constantly studying new materials to identify potential useful combinations. Two such composites have already been mentioned: CMCs and MMCs.
Another type of material currently being researched is spider silk fibers. Spider silk is durable and flexible, and able to retain strength at temperatures as low as 40 degrees below zero. The elasticity of spider silk would be especially useful in aircraft parts that have to withstand great external stress, such as the area where the wing and body are joined.
Additionally, composites made with synthetic spider silk will be biodegradable, making it a great example of how composite manufacturing can make the aerospace industry more sustainable. Though it’s a great potential material for composites, synthetic spider silk has yet to be successfully reproduced.
A more viable material that could be used in aircraft in the near future is hybrid composite steel sheets. These sheets have a base material of stainless steel and can be reinforced with a variety of other materials to create steel sheets that are just as strong as conventional steel, but lighter — a perfect mix for an aircraft composite.
If you want to learn more about composite manufacturing and its impact on the Texas aerospace industry, attend HOUSTEX.