The Asia-Pacific region is at the forefront of developments in composite materials and techniques. Emma Kelly looks at some of the region’s activities.
Last year, the Asia-Pacific region accounted for 36 per cent of the worldwide market in value for composite production and 41 per cent in volume, according to Frederique Mutel, president and chief executive officer of the JEC Group, which is the world’s largest composite industry organisation, representing, promoting and expanding the industry.
Since 2002, the Asia-Pacific region has experienced strong growth rates in terms of composites production – 6.9 per cent per annum, according to JEC group’s annual survey of the composites market. The region is expected to account for 50 per cent of total composites production – for all sectors, not just aerospace – by 2015, the association adds.
“The market is increasingly in demand of advanced composites for a wide range of applications. We believe composites will see sustained growth in the construction, aeronautics, automotive, wind-power, oil and gas and electrical and electronic equipment sectors in Asia over the next five years,” says Mutel, as the JEC Group prepares for its JEC Asia composites show and conference, which will take place in Singapore from 25-27 June.
Asia-Pacific is particularly strong in the production of composites for electronic and electrical equipment, transportation and construction/building, says Mutel. Aerospace is a sector of strong growth for the region. “Aeronautics will be a 2013 main trend. Indeed, the Asia-Pacific region is leading the demand for new aircraft – airlines will take delivery of approximately 9,370 new aircraft valued at US$1.3 trillion over the next 20 years, according to a recent Airbus market forecast. The other highlight will be carbon fibre since the global demand for PAN-based [polyacrylonitrile] carbon fibres is expected to grow at a rate exceeding 15 per cent a year,” adds Mutel. In 2012, around 40 million tons of carbon fibre was produced in Asia, with 50 per cent of that coming from Japan.
With composites increasingly playing a major part in new aircraft programmes – on the new Airbus A350 XWB, for example, 53 per cent of the aircraft’s structural weight is from composites – this can only be good news for the sector. As Mutel says: “For aerospace, for commercial planes, composites penetration continues in new design as composites are applied to all critical parts. This trend is driven by the positive economic global impact of composites – weight reduction leading to fuel cost savings.”
But with the growing use of composites in aerospace production comes challenges, says Mutel. “The whole aerospace supply chain is under pressure to deliver composites structures and parts with a triple challenge – quality, lightness and safety. From upstream to downstream of the value chain, all segments have to reach the targets,” says Mutel.
China, Japan and Taiwan lead the field in terms of composite production in the region. China has a particularly strong aerospace composite parts business, with manufacturers including XAIC in Xian, CCAC (Chengdu), HAIC (Harbin) and Boeing Tianjin Composites, and suppliers and facilities expanding all of the time.
Japan alone produces 523,000 tons of composites a year for all market sectors, and benefits from a fully integrated value chain with world class local players, an international predominance in carbon expertise and production, says Mutel.
In terms of aerospace composite parts manufacture, lead players in Japan include the big three – Fuji Heavy Industries (FHI), Kawasaki Heavy Industries (KHI) and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) – which are responsible for 35 per cent of the airframe of the Boeing 787.
KHI, for example, produces the forward fuselage for the 787 which employs the world’s first composite one-piece barrel structure on a commercial aircraft.
MHI manufactures the carbon fibre reinforced plastic (CFRP) wing box for the 787 which delivers superior strength, rigidity and corrosive resistance compared wing conventional aluminium or titanium alloys. MHI employs two autoclaves to bake and cure the composite material for the wing boxes for the 787.
Last year, FHI added a third production line at its Haneda plant to increase production of the 787’s centre wing boxes.
Companies throughout the region are active in producing composite parts for the major aircraft programmes. In Malaysia, for example, Composites Technology Research Malaysia (CTRM), Asian Composites Manufacturing (ACM) and SME Aerospace are winning composite work from the majors. CTRM, for example, is a major supplier for composites for the Airbus A320 family, supplying 20 per cent of the wing surface. In addition, it is active on Boeing programmes (737, 767, 777 and 787), Eurocopter helicopters (EC130), Bombardier CSeries and the Mitsubishi Regional Jet.
ACM, meanwhile, which is a Boeing-Hexcel company, produces advanced composite structures for the wings for Boeing aircraft and is active on the 737, 747, 767 and 777 programmes.
Spirit Aerospace, the world’s largest supplier of commercial aircraft assemblies and components, has established its own subsidiary in Malaysia – Spirit Malaysia – which manufactures composite sub-assemblies for Airbus single-aisle aircraft, plus some A350 XWB work and 777 wing work. In 2011, the parent transferred production of the 787 fixed leading edge wing assembly from its US operation to Malaysia.
In Korea, Korean Aerospace Industries (KAI) and Korean Air Aerospace Division are both active in composite part production for the majors. KAI, for example, supplies parts for the A320, A350 and 787, including the A350 XWB’s NLG door and bay. South Korea’s composite sector is growing at a rate of 6 per cent per annum, with aerospace being one of the main growth areas.
In Taiwan, Aerospace Industrial Development Corp (AIDC)has a dedicated composite facility – the Taiwan Advanced Composite Centre (TACC) as a hub for the company’s research and development, design, manufacturing and assembly of composite materials. Work at the facility includes parts for the 787, Bell M429 helicopter, Airbus single-aisle aircraft, Eurocopter EC-120 helicopter, Mitusbishi Regional Jet, Bombardier CSeries and the Sikorsky S-92 helicopter.
And in Australia, Quickstep is establishing itself as a composite supplier through its work on defence programmes, including the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and the Lockheed Martin C130J Hercules, with an order book of A$20 million. Quickstep is supplying carbon fibre composite skins and assemblies for the JSF and composite wing flaps for the C130J and is keen to get on commercial aircraft programmes. The company has developed an innovative fluid-based curing method for composites, the QuickStep Process, which it hopes will find its way on aircraft programmes in the near future. It is currently working with the US Department of Defence to qualify the patented process for the JSF, although managing director Philippe Odouard expects the process could be used by the automotive industry ahead of the aerospace sector.
The major aircraft manufacturers have also created their own composite parts suppliers in the region through joint ventures with local companies. Boeing, for example, is partnered with Hexcel in ACM in Malaysia and with AVIC in China in Boeing Tianjin Composites. Airbus has a 20 per cent stake in Hafei Airbus Composite Manufacturing Centre (HMC) in China in partnership with AVIC and other local partners. HMC provides composite parts for Airbus single-aisle aircraft and is now working on parts for the A350 XWB, including the elevators, rudder, S19 maintenance door and belly fairing parts.
Composite research and development in the region is flourishing. Last June, for example, the big three composite part suppliers in Japan FHI, KHI and MHI partnered with Boeing and the University of Tokyo’s Institute of Industrial Science to conduct joint research and form a consortium to develop industrial-scale manufacturing technology and processes. The partnership is initially focused on machining and drilling process technology for titanium, aluminium and composite materials.
Boeing itself is active in composite material and processes research and development through its Boeing Research & Technology-Australia (BR&TA). The Melbourne division is focused on supporting Boeing Aerostructures Australia (BAA), which has pioneered composite parts production processes, which resulted in it becoming the sole source supplier of 787 moveable trailing edges. Michael Edwards, general manager of BR&TA says the research group has developed some interesting technology which will be ready for implementation on products over the next two to three years and then further developments in five years, all with cost, weight and simplicity benefits, declining to provide details.
Composite research and development is a particular focus of organisations and universities in Australia, with the Co-operative Research Centre for Advanced Composite Structures (CRC-ACS) and the universities of Queensland and Deakin among those at the forefront of research.
The CRC-ACS, for example, which was established as a government-industry research body in 1991 now comprises almost 30 participating organisations developing composite technology and processes through collaborative research. The CRC-ACS is now at the end of its government funding and is becoming a commercial organisation. A number of techniques and processes developed through the CRC-ACS have already found their way on commercial aircraft programmes, while others, such as thermoset composite welding, are expected to be deployed by aircraft manufacturers in the not too distant future.
The University of Queensland, also a CRC-ACS member, is establishing the Queensland Centre for Advanced Materials Processing and Manufacturing (AMPAM), which will be the new home for materials research, including composites.
Deakin University, is leading Carbon Nexus, in partnership with the Victorian Centre for Advanced Materials Manufacturing (VCAMM), which will be the world’s first, dedicated, pilot scale research plant capable of producing industrially relevant quantities of aerospace quality carbon fibre, as well as conducting research. Carbon Nexus is part of the A$104 million Australian Future Fibres Research and Innovation Centre.
Elsewhere in the region, last year composites company Hexcel joined Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) aerospace programme to undertake composites research. “Joining the A*STAR aerospace programme will provide Hexcel with additional research and technology resources in Singapore and the Asia-Pacific region to complement our own world class composites research facilities in Europe and the USA,” says Paul Mackenzie, vice-president research and technology.
JEC Group will honour a number of players in the region at the JEC Asia show, recognising their innovation. In the aeronautics category, for example, the National Aerospace Laboratory of India will be awarded for its 14-seat Saras civil aircraft, which has the entire wing and empennage developed from composites.
The aircraft features a horizontal tail with a bottom integrated skin, whereby the entire bottom substructure – comprising the skin, two spars, 11 ribs and eight stringers – has been co-cured in one single operation. NAL has achieved 25 per cent weight savings compared with an aluminium structure, reduced manufacturing time and cost.
“It [NAL] has contributed significantly to the design and development of composite structures for both military and civil aircraft,” says Mutel.