Alcoa has announced new aluminium-lithium alloy and structural technologies enabling airframers to "build dramatically lighter and lower-cost" short-haul aircraft "at significantly lower production risk than composite-intensive planes".

"The decisions made in the past decade to build the first composite-intensive aircraft was a huge wake-up call for us," said Mick Wallis, president of Alcoa North American rolled products, referring to the development of Boeing's majority-composite 787.

The announcement comes as Boeing is deliberating about whether or not build a new small aircraft (NSA) to replace the Next Generation 737 or re-engine the company's best seller.

Further, the decision is also surrounded by deliberations over material selection and whether or not the aircraft would have a primary structure that is a majority aluminium or composite or a hybrid of the two.

"No decisions have been made on what those materials will be on future products," said John Byrne, Boeing director of aircraft materials and structures, "But we are delighted to hear about the investments and advances Alcoa and other raw-material suppliers are making."

However, Alcoa is working with Boeing to evaluate the potential for the third generation alloys and how to apply them for future products.

"That's the discussion we're having with [Boeing] right now and its up to us to show what have developed can actually work," says Kevin Lowery, director, communications, Alcoa global rolled products.

Lowery says the new alloys and manufacturing technologies are at the highest levels of readiness for commercial implementation: "We are ready to go."

Alcoa touts a 10% comparable weight savings of the lower density third generation aluminium-lithium alloys versus "composite-intensive" aircraft, citing the need for lightning and bird strike protection in a carbon fibre airframe, while delivering up to 30% cost savings to manufacture, operate and repair over the material lifecycle.

Further, a 6% reduction in skin friction drag, along with damage tolerance 10 times higher than conventional alloys deliver a 12% fuel efficiency improvement due to the lower weight and aerodynamic properties, says Eric Roegner, president of Alcoa forgings and extrusions.

"When customers fly the plane, the lower weight and aerodynamic technologies will increase fuel efficiency by up to 12% on their own and up to 27% when new engines are factored in," said Roegner.

Alcoa says the new aluminium-lithium alloys and the manufacturing technologies allow for larger passenger windows and higher cabin humidity.

Further, the new alloys can work within today's existing aluminium infrastructure, aiming to cut down on the initial non-recurring capital expenditure to industrialise a new aircraft programme.

Alcoa and Spirit AeroSystems partnered to validate manufacturing techniques and will display a joint manufactured demonstration panel at the upcoming Paris air show.

Source: Air Transport Intelligence news