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Dreamliner launches the composites age

Boeing Dreamliner - web

“Today, Australia is recognised as home to one of the world’s leading centres for the manufacture of advanced composite structures, building critical control surfaces for the 787 Dreamliner and exploring new applications of resin infusion for future airplane developments.”  – Boeing

October 2013 marked the arrival of Australia’s first Boeing 787 Dreamliner. This is Australia’s story behind the revolutionary aircraft.

Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner marks the beginning of a new era in commercial aviation – the advanced composites era.

The 787 is the first commercial aircraft to use advanced composites to such an extent – by weight, 50 per cent is composite materials. A majority of the primary structure is made of composite materials, most notably the fuselage.

The choice of materials was driven by Boeing’s decision to develop an aircraft with the lowest operating costs over the life of the airplane. Selecting optimum materials required analysis of every area of the airframe to determine the best solution based on the operating environment and loads experienced over the life of the airplane.

That’s where Boeing Australia subsidiary, Boeing Aerostructures Australia,  came to the fore, winning the right to manufacture the critical control surfaces of the 60.1 metre wings for the 787 series. It was a highly competitive process that sees the aircraft assembled in Seattle, Washington and Charleston, South Carolina from components produced from around the globe.

While Boeing Aerostructures Australia is responsible for the design, test and manufacturing of the 787 control surfaces, they are also supported by Boeing’s on-site research and development organisation,Boeing Research and Technology – Australia. This co-location is essential in developing future innovations and enhancement of Boeing products, as well as for supporting Boeing Aerostructures Australia’s day-to-day program requirements.

“From a research perspective we are the largest for Boeing outside the U.S.. We have 30 people on-site all working on composites,” says Edwards.

While most manufacturers were using pre-preg composites, the Melbourne-based team developed, tested, certified to the strict aviation standards, and then put into production their innovative resin infusion composite technology. This process removes the needs for a traditional autoclave oven process, significantly reducing the capital facilisation costs. The breakthrough is the culmination of many years of refinement and development of work undertaken some 10 years ago in a Boeing Aerostructures Australia collaboration with the Cooperative Research Centre for Advanced Composites Structures (CRC-ACS).

“It was the new technology that came with resin infusion technology and the team’s proven expertise to take the innovation to production that was our unique differentiator and earned us the place on the 787 program,” says Edwards.

“Our challenge was to take a development program to commercialisation and the production of 10 pairs a month for delivery on schedule to Seattle.”

To achieve its goal, Boeing has invested several hundred million Australian dollars in technology and skills at its Fishermans Bend plant to support delivery on the 950 orders for the 787-8 from airlines across the globe to be followed by two derivatives planned for the Dreamliner.

Some 1,600 people are now employed at Fishermans Bend, the vast majority involved in the Dreamliner production line.

A shining example of lean manufacturing theory in practice, the production line brings together advanced composites technology, robotics and technical and engineering expertise to take the raw carbon fibre from lay-up for each of the four moveable trailing edge wing components, through the resin infusion process and curing ovens and on to assembly. Quality and adherence to production timelines are monitored throughout to meet the Seattle assembly schedule.

Using this technology, Australia is recognised as home to one of the world’s leading centres for the manufacture of advanced composite structures, building critical control surfaces for the 787 Dreamliner and exploring new applications of resin infusion for future airplane developments.

While supporting the platforms of today, Boeing Research & Technology – Australia is also focused developing technology which may potentially be applied more broadly to applications for future aircraft.“Now we’ve proven resin infusion for the 787 design our research focus is on achieving step changes that will increase productivity and reduce parts count and apply it to future programs. .

The Composite Age flies in

“There was the jet age, then the 747 arrived, and then there was the Dreamliner,” says Jetstar Dreamliner pilot Captain Jeremy Schmidt.

“I think the composite design, along with the other special features of the 787, make this a defining moment in aviation. Carbon fibre allows you to do things you couldn’t do before and the wing is one example.

“You can’t get the aerodynamic shape with aluminium that you can get with composite, so using the composite has allowed the design engineers to make a more efficient wing. Ït’s just another reason why this aircraft has a lower fuel burn.

“It’s a milestone in aviation because it’s not often you see an aeroplane carrying the number of people we can carry on the Dreamliner, while burning 20 per cent less fuel.

Using composites to advantage

Boeing explains its choice of composites for the Dreamliner:

“The chief breakthrough material technology on the 787 is the increased use of composites.

Composite materials have many advantages. They allow a lighter, simpler structure, which increases airplane efficiency, reduces fuel consumption and reduces weight-based maintenance and fees.   They do not fatigue or corrode, which reduces scheduled maintenance and increases productive time.  Composites resist impacts better and are designed for easy visual inspection.  Minor damage can be repaired at the gate in less than an hour.  Larger damaged sections can be repaired exactly like today’s aircraft, through bolted repairs, or using a bonded repair.

Carbon Sandwich is a special class of composite materials that are fabricated by attaching two thin but stiff skins to a lightweight but thick core like a honeycomb.  The core material is normally low strength material, but its higher thickness provides the sandwich composite with high bending stiffness with overall low density.

Carbon Laminate is a composite structure that is composed of layers of carbon fiber that are impregnated with a polymer.  On the 787, the Carbon Laminate structures are composed of strands of carbon that are formed into a tape that is infused with resin (like a glue).  These layers are built up in layers (“laminated”) to create the desired thickness and shape of the applicable structure and then cured through a cycle of high heat and pressure over a time period that lasts several hours.

Other composites are comprised of various materials that, when integrated together, from a heterogeneous material with advantageous structural properties.  Examples of this on the 787 include fiberglass and glass/carbon hybrid.”

Published Connection magazine December 2013