Boeing’s 787 will be the first composites-intensive commercial airliner. Traditionally made from aluminum, carbon fiber composites will work to create a plane that is stronger and lighter with fewer manufactured parts. Carbon Fiber reinforcement with Epoxy resin will be the main construction of these composites, which will make use of an autoclave during processing to control the molding conditions and ensure the quality and durability of the laminate.
Composites will reduce the number of parts for the airplane, and Boeing predicts that the front section alone would normally require using 1,500 sheets of aluminum, which also means drilling between 40,000 and 50,000 holes for the nuts and bolts to attach these sheets together and to the underlying framework. Carbon Fiber composites will allow for the skin and underlying supports to be molded as one large piece. Boeing predicts that assembly line time will be reduced from about three weeks to attach all of this aluminum together to about 3 days to attach the large composites sections together for the entire plane fuselage.
Switching materials has its’ own set of problems to overcome. The customers’ mechanics will need to be trained to repair damage on these composite planes. Damage detection will be important as well. Some will be visible to the naked eye, and other damage will not. Several forms of Non Destructive Testing will be employed to test for damage and wear on the composites body to ensure a safe aircraft.
Composites have been used in aircraft before, but not as extensively in commercial airplane bodies. Existing commercial airplanes have made use of composites in other areas to help make the planes stronger and lighter. Military jets have used carbon fiber composites for many years in their technologies for strength and weight advantages. Private business jets have utilized fiberglass composites for many years in their construction. Homemade kit planes have also made extensive use of fiberglass to make inexpensive craft in personal shops.
The profile of carbon fiber composites will definitely be elevated if Boeing’s 787 becomes as successful as promised.