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Advanced-Engineered Plastics for Aerospace Helps Cut Project Costs

aster, lighter, safer, less expensive. That is the guiding force behind every aspect of the aerospace industry, particularly engineering plastics. Plastic composites offer an ideal solution for engineers because they are solid, durable, and strong, yet retain lightweight properties that can cut both project and operation costs for the industry.

Over the past 50 years, plastics, including Teflon® and other high performance polymers, have been replacing parts traditionally molded and machined from metals and other materials. Aluminum has been the material of choice since the 1950s, and it has proven, through millions of flights, to be fatigue-resistant, durable, and safe from harsh ground and air conditions, including weather, wind, bird strikes, and other hazards. Plastic composites have been in routine use in the aerospace industry for decades, and engineers are continuing to integrate high performance plastics into more aspects of their designs and manufacturing processes as a money-saving effort.

A major benefit of plastic composites is that they are lightweight. This wasn’t as much of a concern in the 1950s, when fuel prices were not eating large holes in airlines’ profits. Today, however, weight is of the essence; every measure that can be taken to reduce fuel consumption (even down to charging passengers for “overweight” bags) is being pursued. Not only that, the manufacturing process itself can be less expensive with the widespread integration of plastics.

Other benefits of plastic components are the durability and wear characteristics. Plastics can be formulated with self lubricating or wear materials such as oils, graphite, carbon and others. These additives can increase component life and reduce the need for external lubrication. The absence of parts needing to be greased or lubricated reduces the opportunity of failure due to lack of maintenance and provides a cleaner working environment.

The integration of plastics into the aerospace industry is well seen in the Boeing 787; concerned with rising fuel costs and tepid interest in two planned airplane bodies after 9/11, Boeing began work on the 787 (initially referred to as 7E7), which would stress fuel efficiency over speed. The 787 is 80 percent composite by volume; fifty percent of its materials are composites. Thirty-five tons of carbon-fiber reinforced plastic is used in every 787’s interior, doors, fuselage, wings, and tail. Aluminum was used on the tail and wing edges, while costly titanium was reserved mainly for the engines and fasteners. Plastic composite parts help make the 787 lighter and more fuel efficient. The 787 Dreamliner uses about twenty percent less fuel per passenger than conventional planes of the same size.

Plastics make every aspect of engineering, manufacturing, and operating aircraft less expensive; from the less expensive plastic materials to the increased fuel efficiency from lighter planes, plastics makes a tremendous difference in keeping project costs down while keeping safety and quality standards high.