Using Thermoplastic Composites for Aerospace Applications
Recent advancements in composite production and processing are making thermoplastics a viable option in a wider array of aerospace applications.
Traditionally, aerospace manufacturers have turned to composites for their significant weight reductions and cost savings compared with conventional aerospace materials, such as aluminum. Thermoset composites have been the composite of choice in recent years for their perceived high quality, commercialized pricing, more mature manufacturing process and well-established supply chain. They found application in diverse areas, including primary structural applications. Thermoplastics, in contrast, have been considered a costlier option and were mainly used in small semi-structural applications, such as clips and brackets.
These perceptions are now changing, and thermoplastics are increasingly being considered for new applications in primary structural components, such as stringers or stiffeners, wing boxes and fuselage panels.
Thermoplastics vs. Thermosets
Thermoplastic and thermoset resins have similar performance characteristics, and both can be combined with carbon, glass or other fibers to form prepreg systems. The prepregs are then fashioned into finished components. The main physical difference between the two materials involves their resin systems. An example of an aerospace-grade thermoset resin is an epoxy resin, while a comparable thermoplastic polymer can be a polyether ketone family resin.
There are many types of thermoplastic materials with different thermal, chemical and mechanical properties, but the most promising for aerospace applications are PEEK (polyetherether-ketone), PEKK (polyetherketoneketone) and PPS (polyphenylene sulfide). All three are semicrystalline thermoplastics with superior chemical and heat resistance and the ability to withstand high mechanical load. PEEK and PEKK in particular are well suited for the creation of large structural components.
The two materials differ dramatically in processing temperature, handling and storage requirements. Thermosets are processed at much lower temperatures, ranging from room temperature to ~300°F. They are typically “set” and cured in an autoclave. The curing cycle can take as long as 12 hours. However, prior to curing, thermosets must be refrigerated to prevent resin advancement and maintain their mechanical properties. Typically, they have a limited shelf life of about 12 months from prepreg production to part completion. In addition, once cured, they cannot be remelted, remolded or recycled.
Producing thermoplastic prepregs and completed thermoplastic parts is generally considered more difficult. They require high processing temperatures of ~600°F or more. However, no autoclave curing is normally needed. The main advantage over thermosets is that prior to curing, they have an unlimited shelf life at room temperature and do not require refrigeration. Also, recycling is possible with thermoplastics. They can be remelted and reformed post cured, offering flexibility and sustainability advantages.
Facilities that produce aerospace-grade thermoplastics and thermosets must strictly adhere to the AS9100 standards for quality and safety required by aerospace manufacturers and suppliers. These facilities typically feature Controlled Contamination Areas and clean rooms designed to protect materials from foreign object debris (FOD). Contamination by FOD can result in production issues, material consolidation problems and eventual part rejection.
The latest manufacturing and processing advances have improved thermoplastic quality and made the material more cost-competitive with thermosets, especially when the total cost of production is considered. The advances affect every stage of thermoplastic manufacturing, including prepreg production, converting and formatting, and component production. For example, prepreg makers are using new innovative resin systems to improve both consistency in quality and scalability. Companies that format thermoplastic prepreg have made dramatic strides in process innovations. These include improvements for both the precision and the variety of output formats that support new processes. In addition, component producers have further improved the quality and efficiency of their processing methods.
The processes used to turn thermoplastic prepreg materials into finished components have undergone major modifications and improvements. The following four processes show the greatest potential for continuing innovation:
Automated fiber placement/automated tape laying (AFP/ATL)
Continuous compression molding
Each process typically makes a different type of aerospace part and requires different prepreg materials, which must be specially formatted to fit the process. The AFP/ATL process, for example, is used to produce large parts and typically calls for precision slit tape on wound spools or pads. The tape is cut to narrow widths ranging from 1/8 to 1+ inch. This allows highly accurate placement when making finished parts. The compression molding process calls for prepreg in the form of precision chopped flakes, while continuous compression molding (CCM) requires precision biasply material on wound spools or pads. The biasply material is also used in the automated press/thermoforming process.
Further innovations are taking place at the final aircraft assembly stage. New techniques are being developed to reduce labor and the need for fasteners. Thermoplastic parts can potentially be assembled using thermal welding with standalone tooling or by consolidation, which welds components together without changing dimensional tolerances. These assembly methods can replace the use of adhesives or metallic fasteners in some applications, reducing overall weight.
More Flexible Manufacturing
The advances in thermoplastic manufacturing and processing allow aircraft manufacturers and suppliers to take advantage of thermoplastic materials’ unique properties. One benefit is greater manufacturing flexibility and efficiency. The fact that thermoplastics can be stored at room temperature and have unlimited shelf life reduces waste and allows for more flexible production activities.
The ability to recycle thermoplastics supports environmental and sustainability efforts. The materials can be remelted and molded into new forms, allowing mistakes to be corrected and repairs to be made at the factory. In the long term, it will be possible to repair damaged thermoplastic parts while airplanes are still in the field, reducing maintenance costs. At the end of a thermoplastic part’s useful life, the part can potentially be melted down and repurposed for a less demanding application.
Aerospace manufacturers who decide on thermoplastic solutions should seek assurance of a consistent, high-quality source of supply. This calls for due diligence when selecting thermoplastic prepreg suppliers and converters. Ideally, they will have extensive experience in producing aerospace-grade materials and be well-versed in achieving high-precision tolerances down to thousandths of an inch. Moreover, the company that formats your thermoplastic materials should have broad-based capabilities and experience in creative formatting solutions for diverse, innovative processing methods, including, but not limited to, the four mentioned earlier: AFP/ATL, CCM, compression molding and automated press/thermoforming.
This article was written by Grand Hou, Director of Research and Technology Advanced Composite, Web Industries, Inc. (Marlborough, MA). For more information, Click Here .