As the long-awaited 787 touched down in the UK for the first time, newspapers, radio and TV were united in their mock-incredulous trumpeting of Boeing’s ’plastic plane’.
It was perhaps an inevitable reaction, but not one – we would argue – that’ll resonate with anyone who has even half an eye on the world of engineering.
Far from being some exotic, startling new development, composites are more widely used than many appear to realise. And while Dreamliner’s fuselage undoubtedly pushes the application of the material to a new level, the aerospace industry fell in love with the lightweight /high-strength properties of composites many years ago. Indeed, it would be hard to identify a single civil airliner operating today that doesn’t feature composite parts somewhere.
Anyone worried about hopping aboard a ’plastic’ airliner might also consider the world of motorsport – particularly F1 – where the energy-absorbing properties of carbon fibre have done much to reduce the event’s body count. Indeed, it’s unlikely that Mark Webber would have emerged unhurt from his dramatic 190mph crash at the Spanish Grand Prix had he been driving a car made from aluminium.
Meanwhile, as the orders stack up for Dreamliner, Airbus refines plans for its own composite plane (the A350XWB) and the entire transport sector places a growing premium on lightweight materials, the steady march of composites into high-volume manufacturing appears to be gathering momentum.
“If the UK is to build on its promise in the composites industry it’s critical that support continues”
All of this is potentially very positive news for the UK, which not only retains a core of world-leading expertise in composites but has also staked its industrial future on some of the really compelling areas of application: think aerospace, low-carbon vehicles and wind turbines.
But while it seems a natural fit, there’s still a long way to go. Although composites have been around for a while, much of the underpinning technology is far from mature; big advances are required if the UK is to make the most of a decent start.
For instance, one of the major factors limiting the wider volume production of composite components is speed: current assembly processes can’t really compete with traditional metal-forming techniques. Also, most composite materials, in their raw state, have a room temperature life of around 10 days once removed from the freezer. If you’re making a large structure, it really is a race against time to complete the job before the material is no longer usable. What’s more, there’s currently no advanced composite production in the UK. We make the components but not the raw material. Many believe that not having this capability could limit the UK’s impact in the industry.
The previous government identified composites as being crucial to the UK’s economy, launching a composites strategy and funding the launch of the National Composites Centre in Bristol, which aims to advance our capabilities in the field. If the UK is to build on its huge promise in the composites industry it’s critical that this support and encouragement continues.