There’s a great future in plastics.
The advice given to Dustin Hoffman in the 1960s in his role as Benjamin in “The Graduate,” is still being touted today. This time, the reference is to composite materials used in aerospace.
Composites are a much smaller market when compared to metals used in the indsutry.
But “composites look to be the wave of the future for commercial aero transport,” Robert Stallard, an aviation analyst with RBC Capital Markets, wrote in a report to investors this week.
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The composite market for aviation is relatively small but growing fast, Stallard wrote.
He noted that Composite World put the current aerospace composite market at about $10 billion. That number could reach $20 billion by the early 2020s, Stallard said.
By the mid to late 2020s, Stallard expects that the replacements for today’s narrowbody airliners will likely be made primarily from composites.
Planemakers like the materials because of their strength, tensile flexibility and anti-corrosive properties.
That means lighter-weight, more fuel-efficient airplanes that require less maintenance, Stallard said.
That’s attractive to the the airlines in a plane’s life-cycle costs, even though composite aircraft come with higher price tags upfront, he said.
For example, composites make up more than 50 percent of the content in Boeing’s 787 and the Airbus A350.
Composites have been on aircraft since the 1950s, but they didn’t appear in meaningful quantities until the mid-1980s, when the Airbus A310 and A300-600s used carbon-fiber reinforced plastics in their veritical fins and the DC 10s and L-1011s used composite rudder and aileron segments, Stallard noted.
More recently, the Federal Aviation Administration and the European Aviation Safety Agency, Europe’s FAA equivalent, have implemented certification standards to certify composite aircraft parts.
That ushered in a new wave in the adoption of composite materials to lighten weight and improve corrosion resistance, Stallard said.
Besides Boeing and Airbus, composites are used on military programs, such as the F-35 and A400M, on business jets and on general aviation planes. There are also non-aerospace composites that are used in the production of wind turbines, cars, sporting equipment, as well as other products and systems.
Bombardier is one of the heavier users of composites across product lines, such as the all-composite Learjet 85. The CSeries is about 50 percent composite.
Stallard expects some consolidation in composite providers. Dozens of companies supply raw composite materials or are developing and manufacturing finished composite products for the aerospace and defense markets, he said.
“We think the combination of fragmentation (of providers) and strong growth could make composites one of the prime areas for future aerospace consolidation,” Stallard wrote.
The increase in the use of composites has also meant higher use of titanium for added compression strength, he said. Titanium substructures have better corrosion and fatigue characteristics than most traditional production metals.