Fiber-Reinforced Thermoplastic Composites

Cut Cost, Save Weight, and Speed up Production

Reinforcing polymers with strong/stiff fibers is nothing new. Such materials have been used pretty much since aircraft were first created. In those pioneering days, wings were reinforced with woven cotton, or silk fabric skins, impregnated with nitrocellulose ‘dope’ to seal against the wind, and laminated wood was reinforced with fabric bonded with adhesive. Although there have been a myriad of developments along the way from those early days to where we are now in the 21st century, the principles of reinforcement are much the same.

Fibers add strength and stiffness to an otherwise viscoelastic polymer that, without reinforcement, lacks the mechanical resilience needed to construct modern day aircraft. In general, the longer and more perfectly aligned the fibers, the more efficient they are at reinforcing the material. Layers of such reinforced material are laid down at prescribed angles on top of one another in the desired aero-component shape to build thickness and carry structural load. Recent developments include:

  • the invention and continuous improvement of carbon fibers formed from the controlled pyrolysis of polyacrylonitrile polymer fibers (a type of modified polyethylene fiber) or from coal tar pitch and

  • impregnating polymers, which the fibers reinforce.

Some refer to these polymers as merely the adhesive which holds and bonds the fibers in place, but in reality the polymer provides much more than that. More accurately, the polymer is referred to as the ‘matrix’. Fibers and matrix work together in synergy providing a ‘composite’ material with characteristic properties benefiting from the contribution of both elements. Matrix polymers have also received much attention in laboratories around the world over the intervening years and primarily two camps have developed that exploit chemistry in fundamentally different ways.

Thermosetting Polymers – Sensitive to Temperature Until Fully Cured

The first and, so far, most commercially used falls within the realm of thermosetting resins, such as epoxy. These are polymers that are almost fully cured, but not quite. Thermosetting polymers are soft and mobile until ‘set’ (cured) with a cross-linking reaction initiated by heat.

The low viscosity of these polymers allows the polymers to flow and impregnate between the reinforcing fibers. In some cases the polymer is very fluid and can be applied by a brush, or roller, or forced under moderate pressure into the weave of reinforcing fibers, displacing the entrained air and in so doing, filling the spaces between fibers with the watery, or honey-like, substance.

In other cases the thermosetting polymer is provided by the materials supplier already applied onto the reinforcing fabric, or on a tape of aligned fibers prepared as a ‘prepreg’. In this case the polymer has been partially cured or β-staged to increase its viscosity and aid prepreg stability. Thermosetting materials are sensitive to temperature and must be stored in a refrigerator to preserve their shelf life, otherwise the curing reaction may be prematurely initiated, rendering the material useless for further processing into parts.

Thermoplastics – Indefinite Shelf Life Without Refrigeration

The second camp is that of thermoplastic polymers. In the case of these materials, the chemistry has already been completed by the materials supplier and the long chain molecules are ready to provide maximum performance from the get-go. No further chemical reactions are necessary to achieve the full mechanical properties of the polymer. Consolidation of composite parts and bonding together of layers is achieved by simply heating, melting and cooling the material under a degree of contact pressure to achieve molecular entanglement and crystallinity. The shelf life of these materials under normal conditions is indefinite without the need for refrigeration.

Suppliers provide composite materials in prepreg forms based on woven fabrics or unidirectional tapes just as with thermosets, except that the materials are stiffer and more difficult to handle, lacking the tack and drape qualities of thermosets. It is largely for this reason (and considering cost) that thermoset based composites won the battle between these competing technologies in the 1980’s and 1990’s when key materials selection decisions were made for the new generation of commercial composite aircraft.

Thermosets were considered easier to process and more versatile in terms of processing options, than were thermoplastics. The initial interest in thermoplastic composites faded over this period and most of the suppliers who developed these materials divested interest in such materials, certainly for aerospace use.

Processing Technology

The use of composites, both thermosetting and thermoplastic, in aircraft applications has grown steadily over the past 30-plus years. Just as materials have continued to advance, processing technologies have evolved as well.

Using aerostructures as an example, in the early days of composite technology much of the manufacturing was done by hand. As technology and input materials continue to develop, there is a gradual reduction of labor to the point of automation. In recent years, automated processing methods surpassed more labor intensive processing technologies for the first time with interiors and aero structures representing the largest growth areas.

Potential to Increase Production Build Rate

Advancing automated processing technologies (typically better suited for thermoplastics) is largely driven by the need to increase the production build rate of middle market aircraft, such as Boeing’s 737 and Airbus’ A320 type aircraft, to around 60 per month.

Figure 1. The higher temperature injected polymer melts the underlying lower melting PAEK polymer at the interface, fusing the elements together upon cooling. (Credit: Victrex plc)

At these rates the prospects of utilizing the fast cycle time associated with a simple heat/cool process without the concerns around completing chemical reactions make thermoplastics highly attractive. There have also been developments in the way these materials are handled and processed, which aid the manufacture of complex parts.

Mechanically, both classes of polymer are substantially the same as much of the reinforcing effort comes from the fibers, which are consistent between these types of materials. The main differences relate to how the materials respond to impact loads. Thermoplastics are generally tougher than thermosets, although there is some ‘blurring of the edges’ as thermosets can be toughened and not all thermoplastics suited to aero-structures are themselves tough. Developments include the fine-tuning of the fiber/matrix interface to achieve the maximum benefit of the reinforcement offered by the fibers.

Figure 2. VICTREX AE™ 250 composites: unidirectional tapes and laminate panels offer benefits in terms of speed of component manufacture and cost-efficient installation. (Credit: Victrex plc)

One of the outstanding thermoplastic polymers that has received a lot of attention over the three-plus decades since it was first created is polyetheretherketone (PEEK)*. This is a tough, high-temperature polymer that melts at 343°C/650°F. Other high performance polymers utilized within the aerospace industry include polyetherketoneketone (PEKK) and polyphenylene sulphide (PPS). A more recent addition to the fold is VICTREX AE™250 polymer which is related to PEEK except that the chemistry of this polymer has been modified to reduce the melting temperature somewhat below that of PEEK (305°C/581°F vs. 343°C/ 650°F) which widens the processing window, aiding parts manufacture (Figure 1). This polymer has been incorporated into composite tapes (Figure 2) and fabrics, being offered to the market, in effect, as easier processing PEEK.

Such materials lend themselves to modern prepreg layup processes, for example automated tape laying (ATL) and automated fiber placement (AFP) which, using robotic manipulation and heat, can lay down prepreg tapes onto tooling to build complex curved parts. Development work is progressing that aims to provide fully consolidated laminates ‘out of the box’ using these robotic layup machines. For now there has to be a secondary consolidation step, which might include hot stamping in a press, or consolidation under pressure in an autoclave.

Lower Temperature Processing

The newer material VICTREX AE 250 composites, can be easily consolidated under moderate pressure (1 bar/14.5 psi) in an out of autoclave (OoA) process, further simplifying the production of aerospace parts and saving the expense of an autoclave. The innovative low melt PAEK composites family enables a unique hybrid molding process, a development which incorporates pre-consolidated composite structural elements overmolded with short carbon fiber compounds to create yet further opportunities to save manufacturing cost and component mass compared with metallic counterparts. Parts manufactured via hybrid overmolding are largely used for structural brackets because they can be manufactured into complex geometries and offer the strength of continuously reinforced composite.

Figure 3. Aerospace grid stiffened demonstration panel – thermoplastic composite using VICTREX™ PAEK-based solutions. (Credit: ThermoPlastic Composite Research Center (TPRC))

As supply chain and capacity are important criteria for increasing the amount of thermoplastic composites in future aircraft programs, Victrex has teamed up with TriMack in the US to create TxV Aero Composites, a joint venture dedicated to further developing hybrid overmolding by offering design and manufacturing services to the aerospace supply chain. Together with a broader representation across the aerospace industry, Victrex is actively participating in a hybrid overmolding development project with the Thermoplastic Composite Research Center (TPRC), Enchede, Netherlands, creating parts that demonstrate the fundamental relationships between materials and processing ( Figure 3).

A Bright Future

Recently introduced innovative thermoplastic composites for aerospace offer multiple advantages, including very short production times and low overall costs, compared to their thermoset counterparts, which today are in frequent use.

A typical VICTREX AE 250 thermoplastic composite part such as a structural bracket,

  • can reduce manufacturing time by 20-30% compared to metals or other polymer materials;

  • can deliver weight savings of up to 60% over conventional metallic solutions, contributing to cuts in fuel consumption and thus emissions;

  • overall can reduce cost by 40% compared to machined metals;

  • offers continuous manufacturing processes and cycle times measured in minutes versus hours for thermoset alternatives.

Thermoset and thermoplastic composites will continue to compete as they vie for space as aerospace structural materials, but no doubt eventually there will be more of a balance between the use of these materials as engineers select the most appropriate materials for any particular application based on cost and fitness for purpose.

This article was written by Dr. Stuart Green, Market Technology Manager Aerospace, Victrex plc (Lancashire, UK). For more information, visit here .