Alcoa is counter-attacking the rising use of composites in aircraft structures. The global aluminum giant will invest more than $90 million to build a new plant in Lafayette, Ind., capable of churning out 20,000 metric tons a year of advanced alloys that it says will allow airframers to build lighter and lower-weight aircraft. Production is slated to begin in 2014.
The company also will expand output of the patented third-generation aluminum-lithium alloys at facilities in western Pennsylvania and the U.K.
The advanced alloys, unveiled last June, will provide 10% weight savings and cost up to 30% less to manufacture, Alcoa says. The new alloys will require corrosion inspections just once every 12 years, matching one of the benefits of composites.
“This will be a game changer and get us back in the envelope with composites,” says Eric Roegner, president of the company’s Forgings and Extrusions unit.
Or will it? Composite manufacturing is not standing still. Boeing CEO Jim McNerney says the company is “at the very beginning of the learning curve” in composites with its breakthrough 787 program. “We see all kinds of reformulation to make them lighter, stronger and less costly to manufacture.”
Composites are not all bad for Alcoa, either. The company derives $1 billion a year—one-third of its aerospace sales—from titanium fasteners, which are used to bind composite skins to titanium underneath.
Alcoa is investing another $100 million to rebuild a 50,000-ton press in Cleveland that forges aircraft parts. While two larger presses are under construction in China, Alcoa’s technological prowess—including an advanced hydraulic control system—will enable it to forge aluminum parts with unmatched precision when it begins operating in February.