Even during the most unsettling periods of the recent economic downturn, GKN Aerospace continued to invest heavily in being at aerospace’s technological leading edge. Prime evidence of this is its leadership role in the establishment of the UK’s new National Composites Centre, where work is due to start this summer. To kick-start this initiative, GKN and partners from aerospace and other industries have just completed the Inspirational Composites project to define the initial R&D goals for the new government-backed facility, which will be based close to GKN’s Filton site and will work closely with nearby Bristol University.
Also kicking off soon in Filton will be work commissioned through a new R&D collaboration agreed with Airbus parent group EADS to develop more environmentally sustainable methods for aircraft manufacturing. This too has enjoyed some financial support from the UK government.
GKN has extended its role in the European Commission-backed Clean Sky program to develop and harness technology that can reduce air transport’s environmental footprint. Working with Airbus, the company is in the middle of the design phase for developing a laminar wing that will be flown on an A340 in 2014 to prove whether the anticipated reduction in drag delivers sufficient cuts in fuel burn to merit its adoption for new airliners.
The engineering team led by GKN technology director Richard Oldfield is also applying itself to the development of what he called “differentiating technologies” in areas such as transparencies and coatings. “We’ve got about a dozen different technologies coming together,” he told AIN. “We’re applying niche technologies to aircraft structures to increase functionality and add value.”
For instance, GKN is working on coatings that would resist the formation of ice on aerostructures to reduce the need to use energy-consuming heat for de-icing. Ice protection research work has also yielded new designs for engine inlets and exposed areas of wings. This work, and greater use of smart coatings, is also reducing the noise footprint of aircraft
Providing lightening protection for composite structures has been another big issue for the GKN research team because the traditional method of fitting copper mesh inside the structure would add weight and so undermine one of the key reasons for using composites. “So instead, we’ve been finding ways to integrate other metallic elements into the composites to replicate the effect of the copper mesh,” Oldfield explained.
Not so long ago, the ascent of composites in aerostructures manufacturing seemed an unstoppable progression that could happen only at the expense of metals. Fresh thinking at GKN is changing that, with engineers increasingly coming to the conclusion that the two families of materials can coexist in cooperative harmony to give manufacturers the best of both worlds.
The company is making progress in the application of hybrid structures that combine titanium and composites. The company has devised a way to use degradable hooks to bind the two materials together until they are permanently bonded.
What’s more, GKN also is finding ways to make more efficient use of the materials individually. With composites it is increasingly building up structures from a powder form so that the manufacturer ends up using 90 percent of the raw materials, as opposed to the traditional approach in which it would start with a composite block and then machine away 90 percent of the mass to use only the remaining 10 percent.
Working with engine maker Rolls-Royce, GKN also is testing new sintering techniques in which metallic powder is formed into structures by applying heat without reaching melting point. This could reduce a four-stage forging process for making turbine blades into a single process. Other work is being done to fine-tune the material properties of metals by remixing the powder content.
So for GKN, it is no longer a case of composites or metals. “What it comes down to is which material is most competitive and offers the highest [profit] margin [for a specific application], or could it be that this would be from a combination of both,” concluded Oldfield.
But one of his greatest challenges remains recruiting the right engineering talent for GKN’s work, with the UK education still lagging in the production of a new generation of aerospace engineers. The company needs to find at least 300 more composites specialists and is having to implement its own training programs to cross-train people with the right aptitude but insufficient direct experience in the field.