A new aluminum-lithium foundry in Issoire, France, opened March 26 by aluminum specialist Constellium embodies the latest effort to regain ground lost to composite materials in aircraft construction. Dedicated to a new line of alloys dubbed Airware, the new casthouse has the capacity to produce 14,000 metric tons of aluminum-lithium per year, making it the world’s first large-scale production facility of the alloy.
Two furnaces have begun operating, marking the start of Constellium’s production ramp-up for Airware’s first two customers. Airbus and Bombardier each use the alloy for the A350 XWB long-haul twinjet and 100- to 160-seat CSeries, respectively. Both manufacturers plan to fly their new airplanes for the first time this summer.
Plans call for another two furnaces to enter into service in Issoire in 2016. At that point, Constellium expects to have invested €52 million ($68 million), including funding of a pilot phase at its research and development center in Voreppe, France. Issoire is slated to produce enough Airware aluminum for 140 A350s per year–Airbus’ stated goal–and an undisclosed number of CSeries jets.
Airbus buys some 75 to 80 metric tons of Airware per A350. The buy-to-fly ratio stands at close to 20 percent, meaning that machining processes produce more than 60 tons of turnings, all of which get carefully collected due to the high value of the alloys. New recycling processes, part of Airware’s proprietary techniques, keep the metals’ properties intact.
While the new alloys yield significant benefits in weight and strength, Constellium has already started working on the next generation. “Future alloys will be much more customized; we’ll ask our customer what properties he wants and we’ll create a suitable material,” research and innovation director Bruno Chenal explained.
Studies by Constellium’s engineers thus center on developing lighter and more corrosion-proof formulas for, the company hopes, the successor to the A320neo, for example. Future wing skin panels have reached a test phase. Engineers are also working on “function integration,” such as optic fibers for structural health monitoring. The Airware factory employs 40 people. Last year, Constellium’s aerospace revenues totaled about €650 million ($845 million).