Russian composites for aircraft construction, the unique competences of AeroComposite
AeroComposite created as a sinAeroComposite was created as a common competence centre for the design and manufacture of composite structures for Russian civil aircraft engineering. Today, our main project focuses on the creation of composite components for the new-generation short and medium passenger liner MS-21 which is being developed by the Irkut Corporation. In particular, this plane will carry fully composite wing and empennage designed by our experts and manufactured at its subsidiaries in Ulyanovsk and Kazan. We are now at the stage of pilot production design and manufacture structures for the first flight prototype which will be transferred to the Irkut Corporation in the coming months. We have also developed operating and control elements, e.g. rudders, flaps etc. for the Sukhoi Superjet 100 airliner, and they are currently being tested at the Central AeroHydrodynamic Institute named after N.E. Zhukovsky (TsAGI).
Composite materials have been used in the aircraft industry for nearly 40 years. At first, some of them were used to make elements relatively simple in design, e.g. ailerons, vertical rudders and elevation rudders, flaps, air brakes, and then more sophisticated units, such as fins and stabilisers. A new phase began with the appearance of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft with composite fuselages, tails and wings followed by the Airbus A350 and the Bombardier CSeries. MS-21 is the first Russian airliner with a wing made of composite materials although the fuselage is still made of aluminium.
Replacing aluminium with composites in the civil aviation is due to the fact that the latter can create more sophisticated structures in terms of the aerodynamic design. For example, the so-called "high-aspect-ratio wing", which is used in MS-21, increases fuel efficiency by 6-8% thus contributing to substantial savings. Furthermore, the use of composites allows reducing the aircraft weight by a few per cent. I think that the trend towards the introduction of PCM will continue in the new models of aircraft in the future.
What types of composite materials are used by your company?
The load-bearing structures of aircraft carbon-fibre-based PCM are used, and the elements that are not subjected to high stresses are produced with fibre glass of lower cost. Epoxide resins are mainly used as binder. One of the tasks that we perform along with our partners is import substitution in the production of components of composite materials. In particular, we have begun to introduce new resins for binder created by the All-Russian Institute of Aviation Materials (VIAM) but the carbon fibre of the required quality is made only in Japan and the US.
We monitor new developments, for example in the area of hardening products with carbon nanotubes and using thermoplastic composites but they are not yet used in mass production. In general, aeronautics is quite a conservative industry as safety is regarded as of paramount importance, and new materials must be repeatedly checked before commissioning, otherwise a plane will not pass certification. Usually it should take not less than five years between the completion of research and implementation of its results.
What competencies of the company can be regarded as unique?
Creating such composite structures as an aircraft wing is in itself a unique competence; only three aircraft manufacturers in the world have the same besides us. Design and strength calculation of composite structures is fundamentally different from the techniques used for aluminium and other traditional aircraft building materials. This manufacturing technology should enable the manufacture of high-precision large-sized parts. In production Boeing and Airbus use the common autoclave method of forming articles from pre-pregs that, in our view, can be characterized by significant disadvantages. Firstly, it is associated with high expenditures due to the high cost of equipment, high labour-intensiveness and relatively low product yield; secondly, it is very difficult to produce articles of intricate geometrical shape with this method. We, as well as the Bombardier company, have focused on the use of a more advanced vacuum infusion method typical of high technological capabilities at a lower cost. But the technical level of our production is higher than that of the Canadian colleagues as we implemented automated laying of materials in the mould with specially designed robots and bridge-type machines minimising the impact of human factors on the quality of products. Furthermore, for polymerisation of the binder, instead of autoclaves, we use low-temperature furnaces to significantly reduce manufacturing costs. These technological solutions are patented and provide us with a certain handicap over our competitors.
With the infusion technology products are manufactured at the AeroComposite-Ulyanovsk factory, our main production facility at which assembly is performed as well. At the KAPO-Composite plant the equipment for the classical autoclave method is mounted; it is used in cases where the vacuum infusion is not suitable or does not apply, for example, in the manufacture of cell structures. New processes are tested in the experimental laboratory in Moscow, and then introduced at production plants.
Are there prospects for exploiting the AeroComposite opportunities in other industries?
By the characteristics of products and the level of technical requirements, the helicopter industry, space industry, and, oddly enough, wind energy, in which wind turbine blades have a length of up to 60 m and are made of composite materials, are the closest. Other industries, such as automobile manufacturing, require very different levels of performance and cost, and therefore, other equipment. We work with helicopter manufacturers, Roskosmos (Russian Federal Space Agency), and if wind-power engineering is going to develop, we are willing to take a strong position in this market.
What kind of research institutions AeroComposite is cooperating with?
All major structural strength tests are conducted in the TsAGI, and we also jointly develop methods of strength calculations. With VIAM we implement an import substitution programme in the field of materials; they develop for us pre-pregs instead of the American ones and, as mentioned earlier, new binders. The National Institute of Aviation Technology (NIAT) assists in the development of special fasteners and assembly technologies. We also cooperate with the INUMiT company at the Moscow State University in the field of structural analysis of composites.
Is the staffing problem relevant for your company?
Yes, it is relevant, as for the whole country. Especially noticeable is the shortage of skilled workers because no institution delivers such training. Universities provide engineers but either insufficient number or not the specialisation we need. Therefore it is necessary to devote much time and attention to the selection of staff and bringing them up to the required level. Designers come to the parent company mostly from the Moscow Aviation Institute (MAI), process engineers from the Tsiolkovsky Moscow State Aviation Technological University, structural analysts from the Bauman Moscow State Technical University. Manufacturing companies mainly require equipment operators and programmers with a high level of technical training whom you can entrust the control of machines worth millions of dollars. We have very few manual labour; the process machines are produced by leading European companies including a large part of it specifically for our tasks, and are highly automated.
Are there prospects for exporting your products?
Yes, we pretty closely cooperate with the Austrian company FACC, and fulfil their orders once in a while. When MS-21 conducts its first flight, the circle of customers can extend, especially if the political situation improves by that time. Of course, we will not supply wings to foreign aircraft manufacturers but we are ready to cooperate in the production of simpler units.
What are the plans for the development of the company?
Future plans are associated with MS-21; it is necessary to supply the first aircraft set for testing; by the end of 2017, in cooperation with the Irkut Corporation, the aircraft should be prepared for the type certification, and then the serial production should be launched. There is also a project related to an air carrier, and a joint project of UAC with the Chinese company COMAC to establish a fully composite wide-body aircraft. Another objective is to promote manufacturing companies. With the available equipment we can produce up to 24 aircraft sets per year, and the design capacity of our plants is up to 70 aircraft sets per year. R&D is a separate area to improve the materials, design solutions and technologies that enable us to be among the technology leaders.
Thanks for the interesting story.
The interview was taken by D.Gudilin