The defense industry has been moving more quickly to adopt new technologies to stay abreast of competitive threats from adversaries. While many of these technologies revolve around using more manufacturing automation and analytics to get new products and systems to the warfighter faster, others are focused on aerospace systems and next-generation advanced composite materials that are lightweight, strong, and durable – leading to the development of systems that increase range, lower operational costs, and carry more payload.
At Hexcel, we develop innovative manufacturing technologies and advanced composite materials and systems for the defense aerospace industry that meet the needs for agile, high-rate manufacturing and responsiveness. Increasingly, the focus is on high-rate composites manufacturing for emerging platforms for unmanned systems. Here are some of the technologies and material systems Hexcel is currently developing:
Additive Manufacturing–3D printing technology is a mature technology that has been used for decades for prototyping, tooling, jigs, fixtures, and non-structural parts. Additive manufacturing is attractive for production structural applications because it is agile by nature and can eliminate tooling. It also allows systems designs to quickly evolve and adapt to meet the continual advances in technology and warfighter needs. The challenge has been having confidence in the repeatability and quality of the process. Hexcel has spent years developing the reliable material data needed for design and qualification and the quality systems for the reliable adoption of composite additive manufacturing for production applications.
New Composite Material Systems–Traditional aerospace composites are epoxy-based systems that use autoclaves for processing and curing. These materials and processes have been proven over decades and produce high-quality and consistent composite structures. Other industries – such as automotive, energy, and consumer products – have used out-of-autoclave composite materials to meet the higher rates and lower costs required by those industries. These material systems are well developed but often do not meet aerospace requirements. At Hexcel, we are working to increase the quality and capability of several out-of-autoclave material systems to produce aerospace-quality parts at high production rates. These material systems include out-of-autoclave epoxy-based systems, resin transfer molding, thermoplastic composites, and compression molding material systems.
High-Rate Manufacturing –New material systems that can be processed at a faster rate also require manufacturing technology that can automate the production of these systems. Automated tape laying (ATL) and fiber placement (AFP) technologies have been used for some time and they continue to improve. The speed of operation is heavily dependent on material systems, and Hexcel continues to advance composite materials technology to allow ATL/AFP systems to run faster. There are also advances in compression molding technology, resin infusion, pick and place technology, and continuous fiber 3D printing, and Hexcel is developing the material systems that can take best advantages of these manufacturing technologies.
Agile manufacturing of composite structures requires close coordination with composite material providers. Automated and high-rate manufacturing can only occur if the material systems are developed to take advantage of these manufacturing technologies. Continued coordination between the producers of materials and manufacturing organizations will allow the defense aerospace industry to quickly and efficiently meet the evolving needs of the warfighter.