With formatting services for thermoplastic composite aircraft parts, terms like slitting, chopping, and spooling are no longer sufficient to categorize capabilities. Instead, think in terms of invention and innovation that highly skilled custom formatters can provide from the earliest stages of a component’s design process.

Following are six things to know about custom formatters’ growing role as an expert partner whose skills enable them to produce a custom solution for next-generation aircraft.

1. Formatting/custom formatting

Conventional material formatting is the process that slits or chops and then packages a thermoplastic or other composite according to a manufacturer’s specifications for subsequent layup, molding, and heating or compression into a finished part. Slit tapes are packaged or wound on spools; chopped materials are packaged in containers. In addition to dedicated formatting businesses, some aircraft and component manufacturers and materials suppliers perform conventional formatting.

Chopped thermoplastic

While the conventional formatting process sounds relatively simple, it involves high-level engineering skills, a solid understanding of material characteristics, extreme quality control, and precision equipment capable of slitting or chopping material to 1/8" widths at tolerances at 0.005" or less.

Custom formatting is another matter altogether, and it is a capability that conventional manufacturers and converters do not possess.

Custom formatters combine traditional solutions with material formats designed for a product or process. It is an optimization approach that can convert materials in unique ways and often involves producing output materials unlike anything currently available. Custom formatters can also help enable production methods never used before to build a part. Many aerospace manufacturers value their partnerships with custom formatters because they can help them realize new, innovative methods that provide competitive advantages.

2. Partnering

Custom formatters have extensive experience working side-by-side with aerospace engineering personnel. This, along with their deep knowledge of materials and processes, as well as research and development resources, make them ideal partners for aerospace manufacturers.

They can develop novel formatting processes designed from the ground up to satisfy a manufacturer’s previously unmet or new challenges. They can help an engineer realize a lofty dream about what aircraft manufacturing needs to be far in the future, all in ways that are faster and more cost effective and efficient, while saving manufacturers development time.

Custom formatters are experienced with technology readiness level (TRL), which is commonly used for aerospace technology developments. They can coordinate development with a manufacturer for a comprehensive and consistent methodology, and for planning that facilitates a new technology’s speed to market.

3. Cross-functional collaboration

Change is a constant in the aerospace industry and cross-functional collaboration is key to successfully implementing new technologies. One example is Boeing’s collaboration in the development of its 777X wing, a process different from current methods of wing manufacturing. Keeping pace with such developments calls for vendor collaboration from concept of a new component through to final material output. Vendors need to be experienced at working through long development times and proficient in structured development methodology to realize innovations from R&D to production.

Ideally, custom formatters will work in unison with several parties involved in a new component’s production – material suppliers, equipment and component manufacturers, and design and manufacturing engineers. When it comes to selecting a custom formatter, early does it. If the custom formatter is brought into the process at a time when the manufacturer has already specified and ordered its production equipment, the window for optimizing the entire process and realizing benefits such as additional cost reductions and throughput improvements will already have passed.

4. Cutting edge

Custom formatters are on the front line of innovation and often acquire new levels of expertise via their involvement in academics, associations, and joint projects with research centers.

Web Industries Inc. is a member of the Thermoplastics Composites Research Center (TPRC) in the Netherlands, a consortium of industrial and academic members active in the thermoplastics industry. Web Industries recently participated in a joint experiment with TPRC and group members to characterize the relationship between thermoplastic flake size, processing conditions, and performance.

Access door panel made from recycled carbon/thermoplastic processing scrap (C/PPS).

The subject part was an access door panel manufactured from recycled carbon/thermoplastic processing scrap (C/PPS). The panel was designed and built by TPRC and Fokker Aerostructures; the recycled material was supplied by TenCate, and cut into flakes using a technology developed by Web Industries.

According to documents supplied by TPRC, the manufactured panel “demonstrates a number of interesting design features. These include molded stiffening ribs, thickness variations, and molded holes with bosses. The chopped C/PPS semi-preg allows for an increased design freedom, resulting in a lightweight component with a large degree of functional integration.”

A post-experiment comment from TPRC states, “The inherent recyclability of thermoplastic composites opens new avenues for intelligent green design.”

Involvement with research organizations such as TPRC in experiments like this one give custom formatters insight to cutting-edge design, materials, and manufacturing that exceeds conventional knowledge.

5. Due diligence

How much is a 10% improvement on throughput or a six-month reduction in qualification time worth to an aerospace component manufacturer?

This is a rhetorical question, because the answer will vary from manufacturer to manufacturer. Still, it leads to a critical point: custom formatting can and should be expected to yield significant reductions in cost, time, and materials. Achieving this calls for flexibility on the custom formatter’s part because it will need to adapt, improvise, and follow the often-winding path of product development through to its final composition. Along this path, opportunities will emerge capable of yielding huge dividends in terms of shortened development time, reduced costs, and improved quality and efficiency.

Therefore, flexibility is a key competency that manufacturers should evaluate when scanning the market for custom-formatted materials.

So, too, is trust and risk management. Transparency is always a factor in joint enterprises. A custom formatter will need the experience and integrity to communicate directly on the challenges, pros, and cons of a project’s developmental path. All partners need to conform to their commitments. It is critical for a custom formatter to deliver on its promise consistently for years and even decades.

6. In-house formatting

Bringing a conventional formatting function in-house, or deciding to keep it in-house, has definite pros and cons. One generally accepted advantage to vertically integrating is the process’ proximity to the manufacturer’s or material supplier’s production center.

Weighing against this are the resources that a manufacturer or materials supplier must apply to the process. Ultimately, it calls for a risk assessment: Can your business do a job that is not its core competency better and more efficiently than a business whose sole undertaking is devoted to that single task? Is it willing to sacrifice manufacturing and warehousing space, commit to the production scale, purchase material quantities, install laboratories for research and development, build refrigerated areas and clean rooms, all while mastering a process that requires high precision and years of accumulated knowledge to be successful?

And what of custom formatting? Risk assessment equations here would entail decades of experience, engineering skills finely tuned to a specific discipline, and a proven track record for delivering innovative formatting solutions to new and sometimes boundary-breaking product developments that only a custom formatter could reasonably be expected to deliver.

A final note: thermoplastics are gaining acceptance for a greater variety of aerospace parts, including large components such as wing boxes, stringers, wing skin, fuselage structures, and panels. As the components grow larger and thermoplastics are used more in the industry, the value of serious risk assessment for in-house formatting will increase exponentially.

Web Industries Inc.

www.webindustries.com

About the author: Grand Hou is director of research and technology for advanced composites at Web Industries Inc. He can be reached at ghou@webindustries.com.