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Composites could capture more of aero: Boeing

Keywords: Tags  Boeing, Jeff Carpenter, aluminum alloy, composites, carbon fiber, Nathan Laliberte

NEW YORK — Aluminum alloys will remain key for commercial airplane manufacturers, although composite materials are likely to capture additional market share in the long term, especially if producers of composites are able to reduce overall costs, according to an executive at Boeing Co.

"Obviously, composites are light and have optimal geometry and they really enable us to make some cool shapes," Jeff Carpenter, the Chicago-based aircraft manufacturer’s senior manager of raw material procurement and supplier management, said recently during a presentation at AMM’s Aluminum Summit in Philadelphia. "The wings on the (Boeing) 787—they are there because of composites. The way we manufacturer airplanes, we can do things with composites that you just can’t do with aluminum."

The "buy-to-fly ratios for composites"—the amount of material used in a plane vs. the amount that enters the recycling stream—were very small compared with aluminum, Carpenter said. "We don’t waste a lot of composites. So even though it’s a more expensive material, we don’t put a lot of it on the floor or send it to the landfill. And so my netted part price is lower than you might think."

Moreover, suppliers who are able to provide low-cost corrosion-resistant material will consistently beat out suppliers unable to meet those specifications, Carpenter said. "I keep telling everyone, if you could take the silver out of aluminum lithium, you could get the cost down with the same durability. That would be ideal for us as we go forward with our purchasing decisions," he added.

"I think aluminum is not going away but composite materials are definitely here to stay. We’re going to make (different) material choices every time. Every airplane we produce gets its own set of criteria and own set of choices," according to Carpenter.

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