Paris Air Show

Paris 2011: Washington builds on composites cluster

 - June 20, 2011, 9:00 PM

Boeing’s difficulties in outsourcing sections of the 787 Dreamliner are well documented. From that troubling experience, however, an opportunity was born in the U.S. state of Washington, once the undisputed home of Boeing commercial airliner programs.

With its emphasis on lighter-weight construction, achieved through the use of carbon fiber composites on the fuselage, wings and other structural components, the Dreamliner helped open the door to wider application of composites in other industries, said Michael Fancher, senior program manager with the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences, in Bremerton, Washington. “Driven by aerospace primarily, the sourcing of advanced composites, both the raw material and the forms that can be used to make things, has come down in cost,” Fancher said, citing the 787.

For Washington state, disadvantaged by Boeing’s decision to outsource major sections of the 787 globally, composites represent a promising new growth market and a way to retain manufacturing in the state, as well as to expand it beyond aerospace into automobiles, shipbuilding, alternative energy and other industries. Fancher equates the future of composites to the expansion of the aluminum industry after World War II, but cautions that advanced manufacturing processes and workforce competence lag the coming demand. 

“We believe the expansion of the supply chain will be driven more in parallel with development and validation of manufacturing processes, and we don’t see any reason why that can’t be local,” Fancher said. “We think there’s going to be an explosive growth where applications of composites in new industries like electric vehicles and such is upon us. There’s tremendous opportunity to capitalize on that, but we look around and we don’t see there is any Silicon Valley of composites.”

In composites, as in aerospace, Washington state aims to claim that mantle. The state’s leading aerospace cluster of 156 companies employing 82,000 people counts 40 or more companies involved in composites. Included within this smaller cluster are companies involved in “prepreg” materials­–composite fibers infused with resin and preformed into shapes before curing–as well as research and development, nondestructive testing, tooling, fabrication and assembly.

Washington state has a legacy in composites dating to the 1960s, when aircraft interiors company Heath Tecna of Bellingham, supplied composite materials to the defense industry. Composites played an important role in the development of the 777 in the 1990s, accounting for 12 percent of the structural weight of that aircraft (compared to 50 percent on the 787), and are used in the empennage, floor beams and aerodynamic fairings.

Toray Composites (America), a subsidiary of Toray Industries of Japan, established a plant in Frederickson in the early 1990s to supply composites for the 777 program. The facility manufactures carbon-fiber prepreg materials using epoxy resins and carbon fiber from Toray’s facilities in Japan and Alabama. In 2006, Toray Industries and Boeing signed a production agreement for $6 billion worth of carbon fiber, and Toray now is sole-source supplier for epoxy prepreg materials used in primary structures of the 787 Dreamliner.

C&D Zodiac, formerly Northwest Composites of Marysville, won a $400 million contract from Boeing in 2005 to provide interior linings for the 787 passenger cabin and cargo hold. Other companies provide composites for a range of commercial and military platforms. Janicki Industries of Sedro-Woolley is considered one of the world’s largest composites tooling companies, according to the Washington State Department of Commerce.

“Boeing obviously was very interested in composites, but that whole sector really emerged in the sixties when Heath Tecna began filling orders for the defense industry,” Washington Governor Christine Gregoire told AIN. “While it started in the airplane industry, now it’s grown well beyond that.”

Bolstering the state’s aerospace industry is a priority for Gregoire, now in her second term. It has been a tenure marked by the 2008 Boeing machinists’ strike and the company’s controversial selection in October 2009 of North Charleston, South Carolina, as the site of a second 787 assembly line.

“Obviously, the centerpiece of our aerospace industry is Boeing. But since I have come into office, we’ve come to understand that we ought to be emphasizing an aerospace cluster in our state [with] a number of suppliers, focused not just solely on Boeing, but on their suppliers and, frankly, suppliers to any other manufacturer of airplanes,” Gregoire said. “What we have done is dramatically emphasize the growth of our supplier network across the state to the point where we are at more than 600 supplier companies.”

In advancing aerospace, Gregoire has focused on workforce training and research issues. In 2009, she established the Washington Aerospace Council, a high-level board designed to identify statewide worker training needs. The council membership includes representatives of Boeing, supplier companies, the executive director of the state board for community and technical colleges and the presidents of Washington State University and the University of Washington. Mobilizing the state’s community colleges and research institutions is another thrust of the governor’s aerospace strategy.

There are currently15 graduate students enrolled across three departments in the Advanced Materials and Transport Structures (AMTAS) program at the University of Washington, which is focused on composites being used in transport aircraft structures.

UW-Seattle serves as the lead university of the AMTAS consortium, which includes Washington State University, Edmonds Community College, Oregon State University, the University of Utah and Florida International University along with industry partners. AMTAS, in turn, is part of the FAA Joint Advanced Materials and Structures Center of Excellence, a designation awarded to UW and Wichita State University in late 2003.

With support from FAA, the universities and industry partners are at the leading edge of composites research and development.

Mark Tuttle, a professor of mechanical engineering at UW and director of AMTAS, explained where that research is pointing. “The next generation composites that are being developed will be what is termed ‘multifunctional,’” he said. “For example, the current systems are not very electrically conductive, and that has meant that aircraft designers have had to worry a lot about, for example, lightning-strike protection. If we could develop a composite material system that has high stiffness-to-weight ratios and is also more electrically conductive than current systems, that would simplify the design of lightning-protection systems.”

Tuttle was involved in a project with Boeing and the Hexcel Corp. facility in Kent, Washington, to develop analysis tools for Hexcel’s HexMC product, a carbon-fiber epoxy molding material applied in Boeing 787 window frames, brackets, fittings, Intercostal reinforcing beams and other structures. The aim of the research is to reduce the level of testing necessary for the new material system.

Boeing is honing its own composites expertise. In December, Boeing Fabrication, part of the company’s Commercial Airplanes business, took over the former Boeing Defense Systems composites facility in Seattle and renamed it the Advanced Developmental Composites Facility. Under Defense Systems, the facility supported F-22 wing and aft-section production. Commercial Airplanes reportedly is considering it for 787-9 structures, bringing in-house work that was outsourced on the 787-8.

“We’re planning to leverage that capability … so we can support airplane development into the future,” said Boeing Fabrication spokesman Don Schmidt. “Their role will be to harden those [composites] processes so that at some point in the future, we may not have to source those.”