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Constellium Inaugurates New ‘Airware’ Aluminum Casthouse

 - June 18, 2013, 12:50 AM
Constellium, the French aluminum specialist, has opened a large-scale foundry to produce a new family of alloys, called Airware, with which it intends to compete with suppliers of composite materials for aircraft construction. (Photo: Emmanual Foudrot)

Aluminum specialist Constellium’s new foundry in Issoire, France, is up and running–a key step in a strategy aimed at regaining some of the ground lost to composite materials in aircraft construction. The casting house focuses on a new family of alloys, dubbed Airware, which are lighter than the previous generation made of aluminum-lithium. According to Constellium (Chalet B39), the Issoire foundry is the world’s first large-scale facility producing such alloys, with a planned capacity of 14,000 metric tons per year.

Two furnaces have started operating and Constellium considers the facility to be fully operational and ready to follow the ramp-up phase of Airware’s first two customers: Airbus, which uses Airware alloys for its A350 XWB long-haul twinjet, and Bombardier, which has selected the product for its 100- to 160-seat CSeries. Another customer is SpaceX, for its Falcon 9 rocket.

The company plans to put two more furnaces into service in Issoire in 2016. At that point, Constellium will have invested €52 million ($68 million), including a pilot phase at its research center in Voreppe, France. The facility will then be able to produce enough Airware aluminum annually for 140 A350s–Airbus’s stated goal–and an undisclosed number of CSeries.

For the A350 program, Airbus purchases some 75 to 80 metric tons of Airware per aircraft. The buy-to-fly ratio is close to 20 percent, meaning that 20 percent of the aluminum Airbus has purchased will find its way into completed aircraft. Therefore, machining processes produce more than 60 tons (the remaining 80 percent) of turnings, which are carefully collected due to the high value of the alloys. New recycling processes, part of Airware’s proprietary techniques, keep the metal’s properties intact.

In fact, Airware is a family of alloys, each with different properties depending on the “recipe.” Ingredients include aluminum and lithium, as well as copper, silver, zirconium and manganese.

Constellium has given names to three alloy varieties: I-Gauge, which is suitable for parts with multi-axial loading, such as the wing’s inner structure, as Airbus is doing on the A350; I-Form, which is optimized for curved panels–Bombardier has selected it for the CSeries’ fuselage; and I-Core, which is recommended floor beams, seat tracks and other such applications, as it can absorb a lot of energy by plastic deformation.

While the new alloys have significant benefits in weight and strength, Constellium is already working on the next generation. “Future alloys will be much more customized; we’ll ask our customers what properties they want and we’ll create a suitable material,” said Bruno Chenal, the company’s director of research and innovation.

Constellium’s engineers are studying formulas for lighter and more corrosion-proof alloys. It currently is testing future wing-skin panels. Engineers are also working on “function integration,” such as optic fibers for health monitoring of alloy structures. Company officials hope to apply the products on the A320 Neo’s successor.

The Airware factory employs 40. Last year, Constellium’s aerospace revenues totaled about €650 million ($845 million).