Advanced composite materials are taking off literally and figuratively in the commercial transportation industry, according to a Boeing Co. official.
Brad Lund, manager of materials and process technologies in the composite development segment of the company, told a crowd of about 300 Tuesday that the use of composites in aircraft is still in the early stages, with many performance-enhancement, use and cost discoveries yet to be made.
That is not the case with traditional aluminum, he said.
"That's a mature technology," Lund said at the Composites Manufacturing 2008 conference, a best-practices gathering hosted by the Society of Manufacturing Engineers. "We don't see the properties of aluminum or the process of producing aluminum changing all that much, so we really feel there is a bright future ahead in terms of composite airframes."
Boeing's experience confirms a trend in increased use of composites. The 747, developed in the 1960s, had only 1 percent composites. That nudged up to 3 percent with the 757 and 767 planes of the 1980s and 11 percent on the 777 of the early 1990s. But the 787 Dreamliner, which has yet to fly, has fully half of its airframe materials using composites.
While large overhead bins, more head room, bigger windows, wide seats and aisles and better interior lighting may wow 787 passengers, Lund detailed several advantages that the use of composites will bring to the aircraft the vast majority of which passengers will never see. Composites simplify and speed manufacturing for Boeing, and customer airlines will realize easier maintenance, which translates into higher plane resale value and overall lower operational costs, he said.
Passengers will notice a smoother ride because of vertical wind gust suppression technologies. Those developments will help reduce the number of passengers experiencing motion sickness, and an improved aircraft "cabin altitude," or air pressure inside the airplane, will help reduce fatigue and headaches among susceptible passengers, he said.
In addition to cost savings and other benefits, the use of composites enables other technologies that will lead to better structural performance and reduce companies' environmental impacts, said Lund, an Ogden native and graduate of Weber State University.
"As we look through the historical evolution of composites, we feel that there has been and will be an increase in commercial transports," he said. "Potentially, there are millions of tons of carbon materials in the future of commercial transport."
Use of composites could result in more growth in the industry in Utah. Led by Alliant Techsystems, more than 123 companies in the state are involved in composites technologies. They employ 11,000 people who were paid a total of $664 million in wages in 2007. On an individual basis, that's 77 percent above the overall Utah average wage, with wage growth of 11 percent in 2007 alone, according to the state. About 2,500 employees are expected to join the industry sector over the next seven years.
Jason Perry, executive director of the Governor's Office of Economic Development, described composites as an industry "about the future" and one that revolutionizes other industries.
"It's amazing to think about how quickly this industry is growing," Perry said, calling advanced composites one of the state's key economic clusters. "You really can't think about the composites industry without thinking about the state of Utah because of the really great companies that are here."The composites conference continues through today with keynote presentations, technical sessions, workshops, tours, networking and company exhibits.