Boeing S.C. executive talks composites at conference
Composites have come a long way in the past half-century, but we have still only scratched the surface of their potential as a manufacturing material.
All eyes and ears will be on the 787 this morning as Boeing Co. releases third-quarter earnings at 7:30 a.m. and holds a conference call for analysts and the media at 10:30 a.m. Dreamliner deliveries and updates on hotly anticipated variants of the 787 and 777 are expected to play prominently, along with talk about the looming American defense budget cuts.
That was Willy Geary’s message Tuesday to a packed ballroom of materials-industry insiders at the Charleston Area Convention Center.
Whereas the Boeing 747 was built in the 1960s with only one percent composite materials, the airframe of the 787 Dreamliner is more than half composite.
Boeing now has delivered 29 Dreamliners, including the first made in North Charleston this month, and as the director of Boeing South Carolina’s mid-body factory spoke, just up the street his team worked on the fuselage of the 100th 787. But plenty of challenges and innovations remain.
“Just as it took an entire industry to shape a metal material system into the types of products we see around the world today,” Geary said, “I think we’re just at that same infancy with this material system.”
Geary was the keynote speaker on the second day of the Society for the Advancement of Material and Process Engineering conference, which along with two collocated conferences has made North Charleston the center of the composites world this week.
According to conference manager Rosemary Loggia, more than 1,000 people pre-registered for the gathering and another 500 are expected as walk-ins.
Hailing from 20 countries and 160 companies, representatives of aerospace heavyweights Boeing, Airbus, Lockheed Martin and Gulfstream, and NASA, were on hand for panel discussions and a full exhibit hall featuring several of the companies that supply parts or tooling for the 787 program.
Geary credited the use of composites on Boeing’s older commercial and military aircraft for making the Dreamliner possible.
“The success of these products gave us a wealth of confidence to take an even bigger step in 2004,” Geary said.
Following that step came enormous challenges, including many posed by the strong and lightweight but difficult composite.
Geary explained that Boeing needed new tooling to make the 787 fuselage barrels, some of which is done in North Charleston.
Engineers contended with variations in its supply chain in the way the composite tape was laid down and then cured. And they needed to figure out how to drill holes through the new material, which meant different bits, different force and even different dust as a result.
So, for all of the upside — better fuel efficiency, less maintenance, superior passenger comfort — the 787 program faced major obstacles and was more than three years late coming to market.
“Just because you come up with a grand design, it doesn’t guarantee you can execute it,” Geary said.
Looking ahead, Boeing’s major goal is to increase the production rate of all its commercial airplane programs, especially the 787.
As part of that, Geary said Boeing would like to be able to produce more composites faster and join the fuselage barrel sections better, calling that “probably the next breakthrough.” Boeing and its airline customers would love to have a better way to detect, then repair damaged composite, he added.
“I wish that those methods could advance faster than they are, quite honestly,” he said.
In response to one of several audience questions, Geary said while composites will be incorporated into future planes, making fuselages for the single-aisle craft isn’t a simple proposition. The weight advantages over the aluminum alternative diminish on a smaller scale, he said.
“What we’re finding is this material system can scale up nicely — doesn’t scale down nicely,” he said.
Kevin Jones, a fatigue- and damage-tolerance specialist at Gulfstream, listened closely. One of about a dozen Gulfstream employees who came from the Savannah-based plane-maker this week, Jones said it was helpful to hear Boeing’s experience with composites.
“That’s kind of what we’ve seen as well,” Jones said, noting that Gulfstream’s G650 has a composite horizontal stabilizer but nowhere near as much composite as the 787.
Reach Brendan Kearney at 937-5906 and follow him on Twitter at @kearney_brendan.