Airbus will deliver a member of the A320neo family to a customer sometime after mid-2019 equipped with the familiar row of five composite spoiler panels on each wing made by Spirit AeroSystems’ facility in Prestwick, UK, except this time something will be very different.
Instead of the usual honeycomb-sandwich composite material made of carbonfibre that is pre-impregnated with an epoxy resin and then cured inside an autoclave, Airbus is two years away from introducing a spoiler made using a different kind of composite material. It will still come from Spirit’s Prestwick factory, but it will be fashioned using a dry, non-crimp fabric loaded into a heated tool outside of an autoclave and then infused with the epoxy resin.
Aircraft structural technology moves in tiny steps over many years, and the A320neo’s new spoiler material represents one of the emerging manufacturing breakthroughs: a low-cost composite material sturdy enough to handle aerodynamic loads, but significantly cheaper than $40 per pound pre-impregnated (or pre-preg) carbonfibre tape.
Spirit AeroSystems chief executive Tom Gentile revealed the A320neo’s new feature in an earnings call with financial analysts in early August, but earned a disinterested shrug. Jefferies analyst Howard Rubel asked: “Have you had further conversations with [Airbus] with regard to aerostructure opportunities other than just this modest spoiler?”
But some of the analysts appeared to misunderstand the context, believing Spirit had merely won perhaps a dual-sourcing position to supply a relatively minor control surface on the A320neo family. In fact, Spirit executives later clarified to FlightGlobal that the company already supplies the spoiler for the A320.
Earlier this summer, Airbus selected Spirit to transition to an out-of-autoclave, resin-infusion process developed over more than 11 years by Prestwick-based engineers. The “modest” spoiler is only the first of what Spirit hopes will be a panoply of out-of-autoclave composite parts on future aircraft, says John Pilla, Spirit’s chief technology officer.
“It could be offered on any aerostructures,” Pilla says.
After ramping up spoiler production for the A320neo after 2019, Spirit plans to be ready to deliver an out-of-autoclave composite wing by the mid-2020s, Pilla says. That’s around the time that Boeing has proposed introducing the New Midsized Aircraft, which could prompt Airbus to respond with an even larger version of the A321neo featuring a new wing. Spirit has produced a prototype wingbox that’s about 1.5m (5ft) wide and 3.6m long, Pilla says. A prototype, 777-sized wing cowl developed in partnership with Rolls-Royce also was produced a few years ago using the same technology, he adds.
As the OEMs continue pushing suppliers to reduce costs and invest more in innovation, the out-of-autoclave process – named Intelligent Resin Infusion System – is part of Spirit’s response, but not the only one. Spirit has launched a separate project to develop thermoplastic composites for aerospace applications, he says. Most composite parts in aviation today are thermoset, which are easier to damage and harder to reuse than thermoset materials.
By the mid-2020s, aerostructure companies could have a chose of three composite materials for designing parts: autoclave- and out-of-autoclave cured thermoset materials and thermoplastic structures.
“There’s just so much incredible creativity from companies,” Pilla says, adding that each type of material “will find their application”.