True innovation starts new traditions. GKN Aerospace is doing just that by introducing new principles in aircraft structure technology that reduce both weight and cost. One of the most striking is thermoplastic composite assembly, an advanced materials technology that could help secure a more sustainable future for aviation.
Thermoplastics are a new generation of plastic composite materials, which consist of two components: a thermoplastic matrix and fibres. The matrix melts when heated and can be modelled in any form.
At first glance, a moveable wing or tail part of this nature may be a reminder of the simple way in which paper model kits are built. However, in the case of real aircraft, construction simplicity and reliability of this kind is achieved through advanced shaping and welding of fibre reinforced thermoplastic plate elements. The basics of assembly through forming and attaching may be simple, but achieving optimal functionality in products with minimum mass is a process of considerable sophistication. It requires an entirely new structural concept. The result is true composite design, focused on the specific weight and strength advantages of the material.
The wing leading edge of the Airbus A380, the horizontal tail plane of the Leonardo AW169 helicopter and the rudders and elevators of the newest Gulfstream and Dassault business jets have been designed and are currently manufactured in thermoplastic composites. Cost reduction is achieved through the use of fast and automated thermoplastic processing. At the same time, weight is kept low by designing thin-walled structures, which are extremely tough because of the properties of thermoplastic polymers. More and more primary structural parts will be made of this innovative material in the future, playing an important role in future aviation programmes.