Aircraft structures supplier Spirit AeroSystems is using the Paris air show to call attention to research work it hopes will enable the next generation of narrowbody jets to have composite fuselages.

The Wichita company already has a significant composites-manufacturing business, supplying composite wings for Airbus A220s and composite fuselage sections for A350s and Boeing 787s.

But Spirit is now upping its game, working under a NASA-supported project to develop technology and processes required to manufacture large composite structures at much faster rates – a pre-requisite for future Airbus and Boeing single-aisle jets.

“We have some very deep… design experience [and] structural optimisation experience,” Spirit chief technology officer Sean Black says at the show on 20 June. “These are all pretty high-rate environments… We have a very good understanding of what it takes.”

“High rate” is key to the aerospace industry unlocking the weight-saving benefits of composite materials for future narrowbodies. After all, Airbus and Boeing will each likely want to produce 50, 60 – maybe more – of the jets monthly.

But composites require vastly different manufacturing than metals. They also fail differently and require unique inspection and repair procedures, experts say. Recent issues with composite fuselage sections on 787s – a comparatively low-rate programme – highlight such challenges.

Despite such hurdles, Boeing Commercial Airplanes chief executive Stan Deal says he is “bullish on composites” for use on Boeing’s next narrowbody, which the airframer is expected to introduce in the 2030s.

Spirit is already well into its high-rate composite studies, including as a participant in NASA’s Hi-Rate Composite Aircraft Manufacturing (HiCAM) project, which seeks to prove it can be done.

Black says Spirit is studying three types of production methods for possible use on future narrowbodies. Those include resin-transfer infusion (used to produce A220 wings) and advanced fibre placement (the method for making 787 and A350 fuselage sections).

But Spirit is also studying use of thermoplastics, which are light and strong and, unlike other composites, are easily recycled.

“We want to spend the time through the HiCAM programme to look at these very objectively,” says Black. “We feel very well placed.”

Other aerospace companies involved in HiCAM include Boeing, Collins Aerospace, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman.

“It’s not just looking for incremental improvements,” Spirit senior director of global research and technology Kimberly Caldwell says of HiCAM. “It’s looking at … a step change to enable the next generation of fuselage” structures.