Future materials: aluminum lithium, standard metals or composities

The Farnborough Air Show isn’t just about orders, though these get all the sex and headlines.

While we weren’t at the show, we had a telephone interview with a company called Constellium, previously known as Alcan. Constellium spoke at the February conference of the Pacific Northwest Aerospace Alliance, with which we are involved. We were particularly interested in talking with Constellium because it is a major supplier of Aluminum-Lithium, an alternative material to standard aluminum and a competing material to composites.

Constellium’s Al-Li combines other processes, including a design for recycling, and is named AirWare. Airbus, Boeing and Bombardier are among their key customers, and it is Constellium that is providing the materials for the CSeries. It’s also a supplier on the Airbus A350 (internal components, not the fuselage).

As Airbus and Boeing looked at the A320neo and 737 MAX, and as Boeing is looking at the 777X, we asked them about the prospect of using Al-Li. This is lighter than standard aluminum, more durable, less susceptible to corrosion and enabled 12 years between major maintenance overhauls compared with the 6-8 years now.

But Al-Li is more difficult to work with than standard aluminum. Boeing’s Mike Bair told us in an interview that Boeing considered Al-Li back in the 1990s when designing the 777 but it was too difficult and costly to manufacture. Since then, he praised the producers for strides. There are mixed reports what material will be used for the 777X fuselage: standard metal or Al-Li. The Seattle Times reported the airplane will have Al-Li. We’ve been told it won’t. But with the airplane still months and perhaps a year from launch, there is plenty of time to decide.

Airbus, in an interview at the Paris Air Show last year, said it was evaluating Al-Li for the A320neo. The A320ceo is heavier than the competing Boeing 737 and the re-engine adds about 4,000 lbs. Using Al-Li would mitigate some of this weight. We haven’t heard if Airbus might go ahead with Al-Li, but we’re leaning toward concluding that it won’t.

Boeing told us it will not switch to Al-Li for the MAX because the manufacturing process is just enough different that it would add complexity and cost to the current tooling and procedures.

Al-Li vs composites is a competition that will likely be fierce when it comes time for Airbus and Boeing to design the next clean-sheet airplanes, presumed to be the New Small Airplane, or replacement for the current 737/A320 class. (Boeing may have a new clean-sheet for the 757 class; it has a New Airplane Study underway for this, but the market may be too narrow when one considers the 737-9 MAX and A321neo will do 95% of what a 757 can do.)

Composites, selected for the 787 and A350 XWB fuselages and wings, offer advantages over standard metal fuselages that have been well documented and need not be repeated here. But Airbus and Boeing question the efficiency and benefits of down-scaling composites to 737/A320 category airplanes. Boeing apparently became convinced: Jim Albaugh, former CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, said the New Small Airplane would have been composite, but the ability to produce it at a rate of 60 per month remained a challenge. Boeing went with the MAX instead.

Vistagy, a composite manufacturer near Boston, told us nearly two years ago, that the down-scaling challenges were met and that production rates were the issue. Autoclaves are very costly and so is the manufacturing process. There is actually less industrial waste than traditional aluminum manufacturing, but the materials are generally more hazardous—though there have been strides on this score.

This is the background that intrigued us when we had the opportunity to speak with Constellium’s Simon Laddychuk, VP of Manufacturing Global Aerospace and Director of Technology.

Leeham News: How are the suppliers going to meet the huge ramp-ups announce by Airbus and Boeing and still meet the additional demands of Bombardier (for CSeries), Mitsubishi (for MRJ), COMAC (for C919) and Irkut (for MS-21)?

Simon Laddychuk: It’s very important for our customers (Airbus and Boeing) and their customers to get airplanes reliably. We’ve been investing in our supply chain and capabilities to be sure we will be at the required rate at the required time. Also investing in our people and our supply chain tools, [in a way] similar to auto industry.

Please put into context: how much is Constellium investing and compare this with the revenues of the aerospace division.

The Constellium division has $1bn in revenues and has an investment in infrastructure of the supply chain of E200m in 2008-2012.

What will prompt the airframe OEMs to choose AirWare or standard metals or composites?

The final solution by Airbus and Boeing decides upon for any given airframe will be their decision. These will be hybrid airplanes. AirWare is new technology. We’re working with all the technologies across the product range to have the ability to respond. Want to assure to de-risk the introduction of new products.

What is AirWare?

AirWare is a technology that allows up to 25% weight reduction and full recycling from cradle to grave. We can get back all the key components from AirWare. It is easy to use and it is lighter. AirWare is different from standard aluminum. Properties of AirWare are much more corrosion resistant and improve fatigue resistance. We can change the major maintenance frequency up to 12 years vs 6-8 year horizons.

AirWare is combined with other processes, combining recycling, without losing any Al-Li in the process. Instead of using rivets, we can perhaps using bonded solutions in wings. It is a suite of technologies. We have ongoing research in place for bonding for fuselage, but [it’s not offered] yet.

You referred to ‘hybrid aircraft.’ What do you mean by this?

Hybrid aircraft use of different materials in different applications. Materials that are mixed together in new ways.

Can Airbus or Boeing effect rolling changes to use AirWare for the A320neo and 737 MAX?

All of our customers are interested in exploring the possibilities for our solutions. I think the opportunities for AirWare are all encompassing. It can be used for new aircraft and existing aircraft and upgrades. We continue to work on the options for requests we get from all our customers. But we are not working actively [on an A320neo solution] today.

Other News

  • Of some interest to those of us who live in the Seattle area, Belgian’s ASCO Design Center USA is expanding in Mukilteo with a new engineering center.
  • Alabama says it offered $156m in economic incentives to Airbus and that this was “expensive.” (???!!!!) This is pretty damn cheap, actually. South Carolina and localities offered up a reported $1bn to Boeing for 787 Line 2. Washington State in 2003 offered $3.2bn to Boeing over 20 years. Alabama got off easy.

14 Comments on “Future materials: aluminum lithium, standard metals or composities

  1. Regarding Composites and Autoclaves- My memory may be slipping a bit- but a few years ago, I **think** it was an Austrailian firm that was well along the way regarding a process for composites that avoided an autoclave by using a ” hot bath ” combined with vacuum bagging to get a useable combination of heat and pressure. The hot bath may have been something like ethelyene glycol. IF true, at lest for parts smaller than a body section, it may be a major cost-time reduction. Of course a big swimming pool might still be cheaper than an big autoclave ;-))

  2. According to this:

    “Alcoa touts a 10% comparable weight savings of the lower density third generation aluminium-lithium alloys versus “composite-intensive” aircraft, citing the need for lightning and bird strike protection in a carbon fibre airframe, while delivering up to 30% cost savings to manufacture, operate and repair over the material lifecycle.”


    Al-Li is a possibility for the B77X IMHO. Also, the A380 has a lot of Al-Li as well if I’m not mistaken (wing-box area IIRC). Its a proven technology in the aviation industry.

  3. There are some points I wants to comment !

    Now, one of the great advantages of the Airware alloys, is that they are a lot easier to manufacture !
    Airbus has an enormous order with Constellium , for the 10 years coming !
    I just think, they may incorporate these Alloys to all their planes … with some controlled escalation !
    May be the A321, the first candidate, and the A330 on the row too !
    I think especially to the wing skins, and, at a little down scaling of the main beams !
    The skin’s of the hull my need more complicated engineering, and certification !

    CFRP, speaking, the progress I hope for are …

    High Frequency local curing of the Pre-Peg, avoiding the huge autoclaves !
    And some progress through nano tubes incorporated in the resin to enhance the stiffness !

    Another point of interest (A lot more ahead) is longer metalized nano tubes to avoid the huge actual copper charge, used to allow equi-potentiality and the drain of the lightening strikes on the plane !

  4. The “hybrid” comment is the key one here. Aircarft engineering has als been cutting edge in terms of use and design of materials. Every different part of the aircraft will have specially tailored materials to suit the particular load case and operational requirements.
    So Al-Li certainly has its place, AL alloys are constantly being refined as well (ALumimium used in construction is never pure, always alloyed with other metals). The other material out there is GLARE, a composite/aluminium hybrid used in fuselage skins for the A380. This is a material made up of aluminium and glassfiber layesr, tailored for high strength and fatigue resistance. Just like engine technology, material technology keeps developing and hence no aircraft of the future will be predominantly made of one type of material. . m hybrid

  5. Every body is waiting for a specific glare from Delph University …
    Incorporating AL-LI
    And some Carbon Fiber …
    Just a dream … a five fold sandwich, since carbon don’t marry very well with aluminum !

    • Given that GLARE took about 25 years to develop and, more importantly, qualify and be certified.. it will be a long wait Rensim. GLARE started out with experiments with Aramid fibers (kevlar) and every other fiber known to man was tried and exhaustively researched as well.
      Now, research never stops so who knows what all the clever folks will come up with next…

    • I believe carbon-fibre was one of the materials tested early in the fibre-metal laminate(*) story. Like aramid, I think there were compatibility issues which caused fibres to disbond at a microscopic level. In any case, glass-fibre turned out to be by far the best option, so I don’t believe anyone’s waiting for Delft to produce a carbon-fibre FML at all.

      (*) FML is the correct term for this class of mixed-material. GLARE (GLAss-REinforced) is just one type.

  6. They have tried carbon, but direct contact of carbon, is a mess with Aluminum …
    We have to wait for more complex sandwich (Aramid, fiber glass) to isolate the carbon layers …
    Just some patience !

  7. Aluminum Lithium is nice… but. it also has some draw backs. It’s really expensive. Mostly a chicken and egg problem, since all the Alu providers are still making the stuff in low capacity, high overhead cost facilities. They will make new facilities when there’s demand, there will be demand when the price comes down.

    On recycling, yea you can recycle Aluminum Lithium, but to do so economically and get the value for the material you have to keep it segregated from other Aluminum alloys. This is true through out the life cycle, from machining swarf to finished products. Also, when machining Al-Li you have to use segregated machines with increased ventilation due to environmental regulations.

    It’s nice material, but sort of a pain to work with.

    • It also causes problems with all the cutting and drilling processes – lots of tool wear and therefore tolerance issues.

  8. Constellium in France is thinking 80% recycling … for specific parts !
    The A350 nose !
    And, weare speaking of a 10$ metal … for a 30-40 Tons Aluminum plane, an A320 , for example … this is “only” 3-400 000 $ 1% of the sale value !
    If Airbus or Boeing, manage to win 2 or 3 ton’s (I think just the half, for the easiest parts …)
    It’s worth the investment … and a lot cheaper than any progress on the Engine weight … or the landing gear …
    The Evil is in the certifications …

  9. New materials are constantly overrated. Usually the weight saving is simply calculated by showing that a material with similar stress characteristics weights XX% less. Nice, but the question is which stress applies and which directions it takes. Aluminium is “uni-directional”, CFRP is “mono-directional”. That makes the material less attractive for fuselage design.

    CFRP was also praised for being cheap. The opposite is the case, cost to manufacture the new jets (A350, B787) have exploded. And that is without the teething problems.

    “Cost” is a huge issue with the single aisles as Airbus and Boeing regularly hand out 40% discounts. When the Chinese enter the market, these discounts will probably increase and also apply to non-blueship customers (apart from earning money, A&B will join their forces to keep the Chinese out of the market).

    This material debate adds to the angst A&B have concerning the new single aisle.

  10. You can talk about alloys until you run out of your knowledge base but the facts are if your aircraft has a structural failure and people die you can hang it up as a manufacturer. I have been an aerospace engineer for over forty years and work with every material known to aircraft and spacecraft. But when you haul someone’s kids and grandparents over hundreds or thousands of miles, you better get all of them safely to their destinations. They bought a ticket and assumed the risks are very minimal and the aircraft better not fail, pilot error, a different issue!

  11. I am aghast at the levels of manufacturer risk right now.
    Boeing is desperately trying to cobble together a MAX answer to the NEO, and other than some rather outlandish performance claims few convincing design details have been given.
    Airbus counters with outlandish claims of their own, and now PW and GE join in.
    The only logical conclusion one can reach is that they are all lying.
    BBD whistles past the graveyard, but more and more they appear to be following in the footsteps of the 787 manufacturing fiasco – pay no attention to that man behind the green curtain, there are no program delays.
    GE is planning to use ceramic matrix material in an engine they must start manufacturing in about three years, and they don’t even know if they have a suitable practical material, never mind that they don’t know how to manufacture it in single quantities, much less in mass. They are still hand-building prototype pieces!
    Both engine manufacturers promise new design engine reliability levels that I doubt can be reached within the first ten years of service (remember it took them 20 years to get to present reliability levels from entry levels).
    Is there a winner in this mess?
    I’d have to favor Airbus, as they have less of a challenge with the NEO and have twice as many engine choices; surely at least one will work out.
    But billions of dollars are at stake, and the outcomes are far less than certain.
    As the Chinese curse goes, we live in interesting times.

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