Airlines and aircraft manufacturers are doing everything they can to lower their costs, including lightweighting every component possible, which can improve fuel efficiency. The industry spends more than a hundred billion dollars on fuel every year. While the price of oil is relatively low today, manufacturers and airlines must look ahead to the more than 25-year life span of the average airplane, assuming someday prices will rise again. Cost is a major driver, but the industry is also committed to reducing emissions during flight, and reducing fuel burn from the engine helps achieve this goal. Lightweighting, then, is one of the most important trends in the aerospace industry, and using composites, that can offer the required strength but at lower weight than metals, in manufacturing is a key strategy.
As passengers, we can see some of the more obvious ways airlines are reducing weight: charging passengers for extra baggage to discourage heavy loads (or at least cover the cost of the extra fuel burn); redesigning meal trays to be lighter; replacing entertainment systems and flight manuals, which can weigh over a hundred pounds, with iPads; and making bathrooms smaller — some airlines are even asking passengers to use restrooms before boarding to lessen the weight of sewage in the pipes!
Then there are the strategies we don’t see. You’ve probably read before how airline manufacturers are using new advances in technology, such as additive manufacturing, to reinvent and re-imagine every part and system of a plane. They’re also using advanced composite materials to make the aerostructure — fuselage, wings and flight control surfaces — lighter, stronger and more aerodynamic. Composite materials can be much more complex than their metallic equivalents. There are different fiber lengths and orientations, various resin types, different numbers of layers and transitions among other factors. Digital prototyping therefore plays a critical role in accelerating the implementation of these new materials, as designers and engineers can evaluate and virtually test all these possible design options for composite materials before they are built. This blog post, “Composites? Not as Lame as Some Would Have You Believe,” discusses how composites are reshaping the aerospace industry.
The use of composites is not restricted to the aerostructure itself. One company, Carbon Freight, has come up with an innovation for an area that few had considered: reducing the weight of cargo carried by the planes every day, and even less obviously, achieving that goal by developing freight cargo pallets that are 18 percent lighter than traditional pallets. Integrating composites into the standard aluminum pallets has not only decreased the weight, it has increased the durability and strength of the pallets, an important consideration as they are frequently packed tightly together, moved, banged and abused during transit. The weight reduction allows a typical cargo plane to carry up to 1,365 pounds in additional freight, and enables passenger flights to carry more people without requiring additional fuel.
Carbon Freight’s design team relied heavily on engineering simulation to understand and manage the stresses placed on the pallets, and to test different composite materials. Digital prototyping also helped Carbon Freight meet regulatory requirements much more quickly by making it possible to demonstrate the performance of the pallets over time without building dozens of physical models. CEO Glen Philen estimates that “simulation via ANSYS has saved 50 percent in development time and hundreds of thousands of dollars in physical testing.”