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Under construction

Composite materials are being used increasingly for aircraft structures, but their benefits of flexibility and reduced weight means their application is being extended to more and more of the cabin, says Mario Pierobon

Within the aircraft cabin, besides the parts used for the flooring textile and the seats, composite materials are largely used for many other parts including sidewall and lining stowage compartments. “For years, modern technologies have made it possible that even carbon fibre and glass fibre plastics can be used in the most complex geometries. Due to their lightweight, composite materials are very prominent in aircraft of the newest generation,” says Jörg Mäder, Senior Vice President, Product Innovation at Diehl Aviation.


“After the successful implementation of composite materials on the 787 and A350 structural parts (like the fuselage and wings), cabin parts manufactured with innovative materials and technologies are becoming very popular. The most common parts are seat shells, cabin walls and branding elements, which are currently made of plastic or glass-fibre composites,” says Stefano Capuano, Project Manager at ABC International.


According to Tony Morrin, Technical Director at AMS Composite Cylinders, as part of the constant drive towards weight savings, airlines are now looking to switch the aluminium and steel oxygen cylinders found in aircraft cabins, to lightweight carbon composite ones. “These offer weight savings of around 50% per unit. For a large passenger aircraft with a dozen cylinders on board, this provides a significant weight reduction,” he says.



In addition to being lightweight, composites are becoming increasingly common in aircraft cabins due to a set of very distinctive properties, including very high mechanical strength, a reduced need for subassemblies, lower production waste and significant room for production process improvements, according to Capuano. “Composites in general are already widely used in the aircraft cabin: mainly in monuments (galleys and lavatories), stowage areas and overhead bins, but also to some extent in aircraft seats,” says Markus Höllerer, Senior Manager, Corporate Strategy at RECARO Aircraft Seating.


“The main advantage of using flat panel applications (or more complex geometrical shapes that can be moulded) is the weight saving and the increased rigidity of the materials.” Composites are stiffer than aluminium and this results into a high strength-to-weight ratio. “Additionally, versatile use and easy processing are special properties, and are therefore used more frequently in the cabin. In comparison to the outer structure of an aircraft, materials of inner parts are less susceptible to larger damage. In general, compared to many other components of the cabin, composite materials are designed to last the lifetime of an aircraft,” says Mäder.


A distinctive feature of carbon composite cylinders is their durability, according to Morrin. “Composite cylinders are designed to perform in the modern cabin environment, and to stand up to regular movement and buffeting around in the overhead lockers. A key benefit of using carbon composite cylinders is that they can be filled to higher pressures (up to 300 bar) than their aluminium and stainless steel counterparts. This means that the cylinders can be smaller, saving valuable space inside the aircraft. Carbon composite cylinders can also be manufactured in customised sizes, to suit the space and layout requirements of each aircraft model,” he says.


“Additionally, carbon composite gas cylinders are virtually maintenance-free. All they require is periodic testing every five years, the same way aluminium cylinders do. Today, non-limited life (NLL) carbon composite cylinders are available on the market (prior to 2013, carbon composite cylinders were rated to a maximum working lifespan of 15 years). NLL cylinders can be used indefinitely, as long as they meet the periodic testing requirements every five years. In reality, NLL composite cylinders should outlast the working lifespan of the aircraft itself.”


“Our composite gas cylinders are accredited for use worldwide, holding a wide range of quality assurance accreditations, including: ISO 11119-2, UN-TPED Pi, DOT (US) and TC (Canada). They can be produced in customised sizes to suit the configuration of any aircraft cabin,” Morrin says. “Moreover, fully wrapped carbon composite cylinders can feature integrated labelling, providing opportunities for airlines to add durable branding directly to the exterior of the cylinders during the initial manufacturing process.”


The main parameter considered in the design of aircraft interiors, and even more so when it comes to seats, is the optimisation of space. “Optimising means allowing the occupant to have greater personal space, which translates into comfort and living space. Composites are materials that can be easily formed, and therefore leave designers a significant degree of freedom towards the choices of better shapes” says Francesco Varriale, Research and Development Engineering Manager at Geven.


“Shape attitude, combined with the possibility of concentrating fibres, and therefore resistance only in the most critical areas, allows us to obtain very thin sections where necessary. If we think of a leaf we imagine it light and thin, and so is an aircraft seat today. The optimal shape allows us to reach optimal pressure distribution and therefore comfort, while the reduced sections allow us to optimise space, which results in increased living space. Additionally, composites feature excellent properties in relation to fatigue life and corrosion, meaning reduced scheduled maintenance and therefore longer durability.” >>


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