While carbon-fibre composites have been used in the aerospace industry for years, they are only now beginning to fulfil their potential.
While about half of the structure of Boeing’s 777 twinjet was conventional aluminium construction, with about 15 percent composites, the new 787 Dreamliner reverses the figures, being made from about 50 percent composites. The materials have always had the potential to offer significant weight savings in aircraft construction, but it has taken a long time for the industry to find ways to manufacture composite parts in a safe, efficient and cost-effective manner.
Australian materials maker Quickstep has in recent years developed a unique manufacturing process that speeds up the production of composite components. The company has attracted a good deal of interest and has been working to expand internationally.
Now, Quickstep has set up a subsidiary in the United States in its latest drive to establish a foothold in that country’s aerospace and defence industry.
The move comes as development contracts build up for the small Western Australia-based company and it gets closer to its composites being used on new aircraft programmes, including the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). As well as producing composites using the traditional autoclave method, Quickstep has spent many years perfecting a novel, fluid-based curing method for the manufacture of high-strength, lightweight composite materials.
The Quickstep Process uses a light, rigid mould suspended in heat-transfer liquids. Liquid circulates in a low-pressure environment with a flexible membrane maintaining constant pressure and heat, while vibration in the circulating liquid forces out trapped air and gases. The process requires 25-30 percent less time to produce composite parts than traditional autoclave methods, as well as having cost benefits.
Quickstep’s new Dayton, Ohio-based subsidiary has been set up to boost its efforts to target aerospace and defence manufacturing contracts in the country. The company has had a North American showcase site in conjunction with the National Composite Center (NCC) in Dayton for the past three years and the new unit will be based at the same site.
The partnership with NCC has allowed Quickstep to demonstrate its patented composites-manufacturing process to potential customers and evaluate the prospective market for the technology.
“We now have ample confidence in the potential of the US market to establish a formal subsidiary and deal directly with the various tiers of the composites industry. This allows us to contract directly, either as Quickstep, or in conjunction with manufacturing partners to move the process towards full production,” says Philippe Odouard, chief executive officer.
“The objective is to successfully qualify Quickstep’s patented manufacturing technology with North American advanced-composite manufacturers, and subsequently license the technology and provide equipment to meet the demands of this fast-growing and important geographic market,” says Dale Brosius, president of the US subsidiary.
Quickstep is already working closely with US composites company Vector Composites, with a focus on defence contracts – the main target being the JSF. In May, the partners were awarded a Phase II small-business innovation research (SBIR) contract by the US Air Force – funded by US$2.6 million for the base contract and a potential US$4 million follow-on option – aimed at qualifying use of the Quickstep Process to manufacture composites for the JSF programme. Last year, the partners completed the first phase of research for JSF parts qualification.
The research will focus on process qualification of bismaleimide (BMI) and epoxy resin composite materials using the Quickstep Process. These two materials constitute the majority of the advanced structural composites used in the JSF. The 27-month contract will develop extensive mechanical properties data for comparison to the baseline autoclave results, as well as fabricating and testing representative components based on the JSF design. Materials handling, preparation and fabrication of all test articles and prototypes will be conducted at Vector’s facility and will subsequently be cured at Quickstep’s US subsidiary.
Partners supporting the contract include Lockheed Martin, BAE Systems and ITT Integrated Structures. At the end of the contract, these companies can elect to pursue full qualification of the process for use in production.
Quickstep has already secured work for traditional autoclave manufacture of composites on the JSF.
Late last year, Quickstep signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman in relation to around A$700 million (US$594 million) of potential manufacturing contracts for the JSF. That agreement was followed up with a manufacturing licence agreement signed with Northrop Grumman in March, which has allowed information to be transferred to Quickstep to allow it to provide quotes on manufacturing contracts and upgrade its manufacturing equipment.
The next step in the road to getting onboard the JSF will be the signing of a long-term agreement (LTA) with Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, which Quickstep expects over the course of this year. The LTA is “not really a determining factor”, however, Odouard says, with Quickstep meeting the milestones set out in the MoU.
“We have had numerous visits to our manufacturing facility from Northrop Grumman representatives to review progress on upgrading our clean room and manufacturing equipment, and to assess the ongoing implementation of relevant processes including the ordering and implementation of Quickstep’s enterprise resource planning system,” says Odouard.
Production for the JSF programme is set to start in March 2012, and preparation work is progressing very well, says Odouard. The LTA with Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman is expected to cover the supply of 21 different F-35 components. The parts would be exported to the US for incorporation into the F-35. The production programme is expected to last up to 30 years and generate an annual turnover for the company of up to A$50 million by 2015.
Quickstep is also making progress in its commercial-aviation business. In May, the company announced that it has secured a new development contracts valued at over A$500,000. The manufacturer declines to name names, but the contracts include further collaborative work with a large European aerospace company.
Quickstep has previously worked with various divisions of European aerospace giant EADS, including Airbus and Eurocopter.
The new contracts include development work on the manufacture of integrated parts in a single cure cycle and composite-repair solutions. The work will be undertaken at Quickstep’s German development facility in Munich, and is focused on individual, commercially-confidential programmes, says the company.
Odouard says the new development initiatives have excellent potential to unlock significant new business opportunities for the company.
“We are very fortunate to now have a number of development projects running simultaneously, all of which provide us with valuable revenue and exposure to a wide range of potential new commercial partnerships and commercially focused development programmes,” says Odouard. “The Quickstep Process is continuing to gain momentum in the world of composites.”
Odouard says the company expects to secure additional high-end partnered development programmes for the Quickstep process in coming months.
Odouard remains hopeful that composites produced using the Quickstep Process could be used for the Airbus A350 XWB under a partnership with Composites Technology Research Malaysia (CTRM). Last year, Quickstep and CTRM signed an MoU to fast-track the evaluation and certification of the Quickstep process with a view to introducing it to CTRM’s Melaka, Malaysia manufacturing facility.
CTRM is a major manufacturer of composite components for Airbus and Boeing aircraft and is the fifth-largest supplier of composite parts to Airbus. The company is working to introduce the Quickstep Process to the Airbus network, with the A350XWB considered the ideal launch pad.
Quickstep is continuing to do testing on parts, but the company has largely “proven what we had to prove”, says Odouard, adding that it is now up to Airbus and CTRM to make a commercial decision on taking the work forward.
The Quickstep Process is particularly suitable for thick, tapered parts, such as spars and wing skins, as well as for the production of complex parts in a single cycle, such as flaps and elevators, according to the company.
Quickstep continues to work with European helicopter manufacturer Eurocopter under a five-year co-operation and development agreement signed in 2007. The partnership was originally aimed at producing parts for the manufacturer’s helicopters, particularly the NH-90, developed by NHIndustries consortium, which includes Eurocopter, AgustaWestland and Stork Fokker Aerospace.
A lot of research and development work is going on under that partnership, says Odouard, with the goal of moving towards actual production work.
In the meantime, the company continues to look for new uses of its technology. One area identified as a major new opportunity is binder activation.
Binder activation is generating significant interest, due to its ability to overcome many of the limitations of existing composites manufacturing techniques that utilise prepreg fibres, says Quickstep.
Prepreg fibres have traditionally been used for high-performance composites due to the enhanced physical properties provided by specially toughened polymers dispersed in the resin, but prepreg materials are expensive to purchase, difficult and costly to process and require careful storage due to their limited shelf life. Alternatives are resin-transfer moulding and resin infusion, which use dry carbon fibre materials and are inexpensive and easily stored, and which are loosely shaped into a pre-form of the required shape before being infused with resin as part of the final curing process.
The key challenge to date has been getting these pre-forms to hold their shape before being cured so they can be aggregated with other pre-forms to make the final part, says Quickstep. One option is to add a small amount of resin or binder to the dry material and then activate the binder with heat to produce a durable pre-form that retains its shape and can be easily handled or stored before final curing.
Quickstep says its process has been found to provide major cost efficiencies compared with competitors’ offerings.
“Due to Quickstep’s ability to precisely control the heating and cooling of resins within the curing process, we have been able to reduce the cycle time by between 35 and 50 percent compared with alternative processes, which also means fewer tools are required for the binder activation. The net benefit of these advantages means that a Quickstep-produced binder activated part can be 40 to 60 percent more cost-effective than a part manufactured using competing technologies,” says Odouard.
Furthermore, as binder activation is classified as a non-critical operation, it does not require the lengthy and expensive qualification process that a new curing technology requires. As a result, Quickstep says it is ready to licence its technology and supply its equipment to commence manufacturing.
Odouard adds: “Given the distinct benefits of manufacturing complex aerospace parts using binder activation and the very significant cost savings that the Quickstep Process can present compared to our competitors, we see this as an important new avenue of growth for the company. We believe this will be a major boost in our efforts to promote the Quickstep process for aerospace manufacturing in the short term.”
Composites Technology Research Malaysia (CTRM) is planning to expand its research and development activities in collaboration with various global technology partners.
The work will cover testing, production tooling, new manufacturing technologies and design capabilities, all as part of the company’s plan to increase its competitiveness in the international market.
The company has two R&D centres: one in Cyberjaya, 40km outside Kuala Lumpur and the other in Batu Berandam in the southern state of Malacca. It is also planning to make a hefty investment in the near future for the construction of more manufacturing facilities, acquisition of new machinery and new technology to cater to increasing business needs and growing customer demand.
The company has not revealed further details of the investment.
Habibah Mat Jusin, CTRM’s head of marketing and communications, declines to reveal details of the technology CTRM utilises for the production of components, citing competitive reasons.
The company makes composite components for both aerospace and non-aerospace applications. In the aerospace sector, it is focused on the manufacturing of composite components for Boeing and Airbus aircraft by its subsidiary CTRM Aero Composites, which is located in Batu Berendam.
For Boeing aircraft, CTRM has contracts for the 737NG, 777 and 787 Dreamliner, while also supplying parts for the A320 single-aisle jetliner family, the A380-800 and the A350XWB for European airframer Airbus. The Malaysian company also produces components for Airbus Military’s A400M tactical transport aircraft.
For the A320 family, CTRM is the single-source component supplier for the jetliner’s wing, covering 20 percent of the wing’s surface. The company says that almost half of the more than 5,000 A320s currently in service have wing components made by CTRM.
The company produces the overwing panels, movable fairing, fixed fairing and spoilers for the A320 aircraft, as well as fixed fairings, underwing parts and falsework for the A321.
For the International Aero Engines V2500 powerplant, CTRM produces the actuator cover blank cascade, blank cascade, cone torque box, torque ring fairing, outer panel and torque ring. CTRM also offers maintenance, repair and overhaul services for small general aviation aircraft such as the Eagle Aircraft Eagle 150B, Cessna 300 and 400.
Habibah says the company ventured into the manufacture of composite components for maritime, defence and automotive applications a few years ago. Through another subsidiary, Unmanned Systems Technology, CTRM is now producing the Aludra and Intisar unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
The company first started composite-components manufacture for Airbus’s A300 widebody twinjet in 2000. Later, CTRM secured projects from its main customer, BAE Systems’ former unit Spirit Aero Systems, as a second-tier supplier for Airbus aircraft.
The following year, its customer base broadened with contracts from Airbus UK, EADS, CASA in Spain, EADS Germany, Goodrich Aerostructures in the US, GKN Aerospace in the UK and Korean Air, the company’s first customer in Asia. CTRM declines to reveal details of its business with Korean Air.
The company has a full-time, all-Malaysian workforce of 1,200, with some expatriates working on contract. CTRM started operations in November 1990 with the Ministry of Finance as its principle shareholder. Its first business-technology partner was Eagle Aircraft of Australia.
CTRM started producing the Eagle 105B light aircraft the same year, stopping production in 2006 after making 22 airframes. While the company gives no reasons for the move, industry sources reveal there was insufficient demand for the aircraft locally and internationally.
It has leased 20 Eagle 150Bs to Malaysian flying schools in Langkawi and Kota Baru.
Last year, CTRM posted a profit of RM33.6 million (US$10.5 million) on sales of RM268.2 million.