Airline passenger numbers are increasing even faster than the International Air Transport Association (IATA) predicted just a few years ago. The organization now projects that commercial airlines around the globe will welcome some 3.7 billion passengers aboard in 2016. That’s about 900 million more than the 2.8 billion passengers carried by airlines five years ago—which represents an increase well over 30 percent. To meet this increase in demand, airlines have been scrambling to order new planes. To remain competitive, the entire industry is exerting itself to reduce costs and improve operational efficiency. Oerlikon is playing an important part in these efforts.
Professor George Springer looked out the window of his Stanford University office and saw a wide-body jetliner pass overhead. It was already beginning to bank northward towards its final approach to San Francisco International Airport. Then he turned to me and said, “Flying isn’t what it used to be.”
A frequent flyer, I’ve heard this sentiment expressed in many different ways before, and was expecting it to be followed by a nostalgic sigh, with subsequent references to the golden age of aviation. To my relief, Professor Springer had a more upbeat take on the subject we were discussing—flying and the future of aviation.
“Flying is not for the privileged few anymore. Flying opens the entire world to cultural exchange and economic relations. The world is shrinking because new planes are now flying farther on less fuel and with less of an environmental impact per passenger mile than ever before.”
As the Chairman of Aeronautics and Astronautics at Stanford for more than ten years, and as a consultant to NASA, the US Air Force and Navy, and major aerospace companies—not to mention a successful America’s Cup syndicate—Springer is well positioned to speak out categorically about the future of aviation.
As he sees it, both aircraft manufacturers and airlines alike are on a quest to ensure greater environmental sustainability, less noise, and increased ranges and payloads for their customers: “To remain competitive, both airlines and aircraft manufacturers are looking for technological solutions to reduce costs and improve operational efficiency—and to alleviate the environmental impact of their businesses.”
It is certainly true that advances toward these objectives are being made in aerodynamics, the development of non-fossil fuels, and the widespread adoption of ingenious IT solutions. Beyond that, three other areas of innovation strike Stringer as especially promising for the future of aviation. He sees great strides being made in material sciences, the application of additive manufacturing and jet engine design.
Lightweight, high-strength materials in the airframes and interiors of new jetliners are being adopted to replace conventional materials at a rapidly accelerating rate.
“Boeing and Airbus have already begun the transition from metal to carbon fiber reinforced composites in the designs of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and the Airbus 350 XWB,” said Stringer. “We are sure to witness increased use of composites in the new models of large-volume, short-haul, single-aisle airliners, too.”
This trend in aviation—as well as in other industries—is leading to robust sales growth for carbon fiber reinforced polymers (CFRP). Demand is expected to double between 2014 and 2020 to an estimated market value of 35 billion US dollars.
In addition to CFRPs, durable, lightweight nonwovens produced with cutting edge technologies from companies such as Oerlikon are also making rapid inroads in modern aircraft, where they provide airliner seating solutions, cockpit fittings, and other interior details. Low-maintenance materials, they increase operational efficiency while reducing fuel consumption (due to their low weight) at the same time.
The promise of additive manufacturing
In the aviation industry, additive manufacturing (AM), better known in some circles as “3D printing,” has grown from a relatively simple tool for rapid prototyping to an advanced instrument for the full-fledged fabrication of cockpit, airframe and jet engine components. “Parts with complex geometries that would be difficult, or even impossible to produce with any other technology, are now being manufactured via AM solutions,” said Springer. “We’ll see many more of them in the not too distant future.”
He also pointed out that material properties customization, which makes it possible to produce a single component that is optimized in one section for strength and in another section for elasticity, has only become feasible for aircraft designers since the advent of AM. Superalloy powders, such as those developed by Oerlikon Metco, can be a deciding element in increase application and usage of additive manufacturing for complex components in future aircrafts.
Jet engine design is key
For the aviation industry to meet the competitive demands of the next few decades, new engines will need to be lighter, quieter, stronger, and more powerful than ever before. They will also need to consume less fuel and burn it more cleanly. According to Professor Springer, material science plays an important role in this mission.
“Exotic materials that lie between metals and ceramics such as aluminides or magnesium infused with ceramic nanoparticles will come into wide-scale use in aviation,” he predicts, “as innovative surface solutions can be developed to assure these promising materials’ high performance under extreme temperature and pressure conditions.” Surface solutions that include both the materials and application processes bodes well for continued progress in jet engine performance.
Springer makes it clear that most of the challenges faced by the industry can be managed by technological change. Lightweight materials, additive manufacturing and advances in jet engine design are three key avenues of change that are being followed for both financial and environmental reasons. In order to continue to reduce costs and improve operational efficiency, manufacturers and the airlines they serve are almost certain to continue down these avenues for decades to come.
By Frederic Love