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Two musts for aero builders ramp up and slim down

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For airplane manufacturers, when it comes to the future use of aluminum heat-treat plate there are two seminal issues When will production finally ramp up for the new generation of superjumbo passenger jets, like Airbus SAS' A380, and to what extent will composites, like those in Boeing Co.'s 787 Dreamliner, play in new plane construction?

France's Airbus and Chicago-based Boeing, the world's two largest manufacturers of commercial airplanes, paint a largely rosy picture for the next several years. In 2007 alone, Boeing and Airbus combined received orders for more than 2,700 planes, largely due to massive orders from emerging markets in Asia and the Middle East. And while neither Airbus nor Boeing are expecting to hit the record order heights achieved last year, largely due to poor economic conditions and high fuel costs, both still expect to log between 700 and 800 new aircraft orders this year.

Many aluminum producers are banking that Airbus, after a series of delays, is ready to accelerate output of its massive double-decker, 525-passenger A380 superjumbo jet. Initial production of the A380 was delayed partially because of the high level of customization and the complexity of figuring out how to run 330 miles of wiring throughout the plane.

The majority of the fuselage of the A380 is made of aluminum heat-treat plate, with only about 20 percent carbon fiber composites. In total, there are about 2.2 million pounds of heat-treat plate on every A380, Airbus said. Airbus has 192 orders for the A380, the spokeswoman said. "A total of 13 A380s are to be delivered in 2008, 25 more in 2009 and the ramp-up will reach four aircraft per month in 2010," she added.

The second major issue for aerospace manufacturers is how they will make use of composites and lightweight metals, like titanium, going forward. The 787 is the first commercial jet to be built largely of lightweight carbon fiber composites rather than aluminum. The lightweight composites will greatly improve fuel efficiency, but the use of new material also comes with challenges—specifically, new skills required in the manufacturing process.

According to Boeing's data, about half of the materials in a Dreamliner are carbon fiber composites, with only 20 percent of the 787 consisting of aluminum and about 15 percent titanium. That's almost the opposite of Boeing's 777, which is 50 percent aluminum, 12 percent composites and about 7 percent titanium.

While the Dreamliner has been somewhat of a reality check for aluminum producers, there will still be plenty of demand for the metal in plane construction. "When they call the 787 a 'plastic plane,' that's more marketing than reality. There is still going to be a lot of aluminum on these planes," one airline manufacturer insider said, adding that both Boeing the Airbus are still going to be building a lot of single-aisle 737 and A320 planes, both of which have very high aluminum content.

During the next two decades, single-aisle aircraft will account for more than two-thirds of total demand and twin-aisle aircraft for 24 percent, the Airbus spokeswoman said. In terms of value, the single-aisle aircraft will represent 43 percent of demand and twin-aisle aircraft 41 percent. Some 1,283 very large passenger aircraft, like the A380 and 787, will account for 5 percent of demand and 16 percent of total value.

What's interesting is that both major manufacturers are still at least a year away from deciding what materials will go into the successors to the single-aisle Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 and if they'll carry as many composites as the 787 or A350 XWB. "Many manufactures, especially Boeing, might see these next-generation single-aisle planes as an opportunity to hedge their bets a little bit," a source said. "That would be really good news for aluminum producers."


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