Market and Strategic Intelligence for the Advanced Composites Industry

The Under Appreciated Aircraft Cabin

I recently got back from the CompositesWorld’s High-Performance Composites for Aircraft Interiors. Aircraft interiors are not a commonly publicized item within the aerospace industry.  Despite the intimate contact that airline customers have with the cabin and how the cabin functions, it seems that people are only concerned with aircraft interiors when something goes wrong, or there is not enough space in the overhead baggage compartment. In my case, my knees are often securely jammed into the seat in front of me. From my perspective, the lack of attention paid to interiors within the media and public sphere partially results from the impression that not much seems to change over time. A casual viewer might be hard to distinguish interiors from a decade ago or more to what you see today.

I felt privileged to have been asked to be the opening speaker for the event. And, after viewing some very solid technical presentations, I figured out why I might have been given this slot in the program – there is very little information out there on the use of composites for interiors. In trying to analyze the volume of composites dedicated to interiors components that are attached to the aircraft, I came up with an estimated total of approximately 23 million pounds of finished structures during 2012. It may surprise many composite veterans to know that this is more than twice the total tonnage projected for aircraft structures (see the accompanying illustration).

Aircraft Interiors/Estimated OEM and Aftermarket Interiors Volumes

This slide illustrates the relative size of the 23 million lb composite aircraft interiors market (2012) compared to composite airframe structures.

I came to the show knowing that I only had part of the full market picture, and candidly said as much. Globally, the interiors market is served by approximately 2,000 suppliers – of which I was aware of about 100 that were involved in the production of composites parts or assemblies. As you might imagine, keeping tabs on all of this is a rather gruesome task. In the end, I felt like I made a valuable contribution to the conference attendees but recognize that I only gave them a partial forecast.

Some of items that were intentionally or unintentionally left out of this forecast are cabin seating, galley carts, air ducting, cable trays, fastener clips and a variety of relatively unseen brackets, to name a few.  Composite passenger seating has been around at least since the 1980s – serving largely in business class or first class accommodations. It was noted several times during the conference that this high-end seating continues to evolve an provide opportunities for weight reduction and distinctive ergonomic design to satisfy the passengers.

One of the biggest near-term opportunities within seating that I was comfortable talking about, however, was in the coach class cabin. Recaro and B/E Aerospace have both had some success in developing seating for the coach cabin using composites to take out about 15-20% of the weight compare to aluminum incumbents. For a single-aisle aircraft this means approximately 450 kg of weight. At the same time, these new seat designs allow for the inclusion of In Flight Entertainment (IFE) systems. For the airlines, this equates to lower fuel burn as well as the opportunity to generate increased revenue by providing movie, television, telephone, Wi-Fi access, gaming and other customized services to each passenger.

Through the use of stretchable knit polyester and selective use of carbon fiber in the seat’s suspension frame and back, the Aeras seat project is close to becoming a commercial reality.

At the conference, Christine Ludeke, principal at Ludeke Design (www.ludekedesign.com) was on hand to discuss a novel seat design known as the Aeras Seat Project. The design incorporates knit fabrics and elastomeric materials to provide increased level of ergonomics and passenger comfort within a thinner, lighter design that will be relatively cost effective to produce. The Aeras concept was initiated in 2007, and has been under development since 2008. As shown in the accompanying illustration, the seats have a very light profile and weigh approximately 8kg each. Part of this is possible through the use of carbon fiber reinforced frame elements and seat-back shell, which were reported to be supplied by Reinhold Industries (acquired CompositAir from SP Systems, Inc in May 1994). The knitted fabrics stretch to the shape and position of the occupant and allow for a great deal of visual customization – critical for use among a diversified airline client base.With annual seat production volumes estimated to be greater than 2 million individual units per year, it is easy to believe that this market could consume 4-5 million pounds of composites annually within the next few years. I will be working on developing a more precise outlook for this.

Aircraft ducting is another rather sizeable application that I need to learn more about, especially considering its prevalence on both existing production models as well as those still under development. There appears to be a considerable volume of glass fibers and carbon fiber reinforcements for these applications, some of which include high-temperature resin systems. These ducting systems go throughout the aircraft. One of my near term projects is to start putting some numbers to this critical component on the interiors cabin.

Putting some upper-bounds to the potential here, I estimated that composites make up about 25% of the total volume of interior systems, with seating and other applications likely to drive this total up to 30-40% over the next few years. Another attendee, familiar with airline operations and interior purchases commented that the “non-metallic” (inclusive of composites, fabrics, foams, etc.) content of interiors represented about 50% of total weight. I am guessing that this puts ducting weight volumes in the range of 10% or less of the interiors. For a B787- or A350-sized aircraft this could potentially represent as much as 4,000 pounds of tubulars and manifolds. I suspect that this value is a bit on the high-side (slightly understated on purpose), but demonstrates some of the potential that needs to be better understood.

While not affixed to the aircraft, galley carts were another very interesting application that recently has gone composite. Patrick Phillips, Dir. of Bus. Dev. for Norduyn (www.norduyn.com) spoke at the conference about its patented galley cart products. According to Phillips the cart features a monocoque carbon fiber reinforced frame with thermoplastic composite wall inserts. Some of the advantages over traditional aluminum galley carts, which many of you many have bumped into (literally) on flights over the years are:

  • Weight Reduction: 40 percent lighter than traditional aluminum-frame trolleys
  • Environmental Efficiency: reduced fuel-burn and a smaller environmental footprint
  • Certified: Fully airworthiness certified solution
  • High insulating properties: requiring far less dry ice
  • Durable: the single body shell offers a durable and impact resistant structure
  • Less Maintenance: inventory and maintenance costs reduced through a design with significantly fewer parts
  • Improved Fleet Management: fitted with RFID chips, which deliver better results than bar-coding
  • Improved ergonomics: no sharp edges as found on aluminum frame trolleys
NorduynCart

Not only are these composite galley cars 40% lighter, they are safer, more damage tolerance, easier to clean…and more importantly give airline operators a short 15-month ROI from reduced fuel burn.

Phillips noted that its initial customer for the carts have order approximately 40,000 units and have already delivered 4,000 of them. At this time, the composite carts represent only a small portion of the annual galley cart market, which he estimated at about 147,000 units (and growing) – worth approximately $150 million. Putting some further granularity into the applications potential, it was noted that a Boeing 747 aircraft would typically have about 100 carts on board, and that each aircraft would have an additional three sets of carts on the ground to resupply the aircraft upon landing. And, while the carts are more expensive than their aluminum counterparts, Phillips stated that its airline customer was already saving more than 9,000 tons of fuel/year and 28,000 tons of CO2 on the units in service, producing a return-on-investment in 15 months.

On a different note, this event attracted and facilitated a great deal of discussion on the merits of thermoplastic resins systems for reinforcing composites as a potential replacement for some of the traditional FG/phenolic or CF/phenolic materials commonly used in cabin interiors. In the next blog update, I will address some of the interesting issues and develops in this field.

1 Comment

  1. Bill Houck on September 28, 2012 at 5:35 am

    Thank you for your blog. I will be attending the Composites World seminars in Charleston and La Jolla (carbon fiber) and appreciate learning more about things from some of the smaller meetings that are more focused. Was that the case here? Thank you.

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