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Aerospace aluminum demand said set to slow

Keywords: Tags  aerospace, aluminum, ICF SH&E, Peter Zimm, composites, titaniumj, Frank Haflich

NEW YORK — Aerospace demand for aluminum will grow at a significantly slower rate than for other major materials during the coming decade, as production of composite-heavy twin-aisle airliners ramps up, an aircraft industry analyst said during AMM’s Aluminum Summit last week.

Aerospace aluminum demand will increase at a "relatively steady" rate of 0.7 percent from 2012 to 2022, Peter Zimm, a principal at consultancy ICF SH&E, a unit of Fairfax, Va.-based ICF International Inc., said. This will be the lowest of all major raw materials, led by composites, at 9.7 percent; titanium alloys, at 7.2 percent; superalloys, at 4.4 percent; and steel alloys, at 1.3 percent.

"We do expect aluminum to be growing modestly over this period," Zimm said, pointing out that development of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and Airbus A380 marked a "significant increase in the use of composites."

Composites have also "emerged as the material of choice" for the wings on such new aircraft as the Bombardier CSeries and Airbus A350 XWB, as well as for the new version of the Boeing 777, whose present aluminum wing might be replaced with composites.

The use of titanium is often associated with carbon-fiber composites because aluminum isn’t always considered compatible with these materials. But Zimm sees decisions by Airbus SAS and Boeing Co. to re-engine rather than redesign their upcoming versions of their top selling single-aisle A320 and 737 airliners as good news for aluminum. The A320neo and 737 MAX are "more friendly to aluminum" since they involve new engines rather than a complete redesign of these planes, "retaining their incumbent materials," including aluminum.

ICF SH&E’s 2012 raw material model has aluminum accounting for 49 percent of the annual aircraft industry buy weight of 1.208 billion pounds, with steel alloys representing 23 percent, titanium and superalloys each 9 percent, composites 4 percent and various other materials the remainder. Air transports account for 77 percent of this consumption, with business and general aviation 11 percent, military 9 percent and the remainder rotary wing aircraft.

In terms of value, aluminum and titanium each account for $2.4 billion out of a total annual buy of $8.7 billion, with superalloys $1.5 billion and composites $1.4 billion, Zimm said.

While 20 percent of commercial aircraft deliveries normally replace retired planes, over the next decade this will grow to a projected 47 percent, Zimm pointed out. Part of the reason is due to fleet demographics, with a "bulge" of planes purchased around 1990 approaching retirement age.

But there are other reasons for this "refleeting," he said, especially the rising price of fuel, which represents one-third or more of airline operating costs. This in turn has spurred the need for more fuel-efficient planes with innovative airframes and new engines.

Moreover, with interest rates at historically low levels, even second- and third-tier airlines that traditionally buy used planes are "themselves able to buy new aircraft," Zimm said.

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