Composites: The essence of the aerospace industry
Have you ever wondered what goes in to making airplane parts, such as the fuselage (the body of the plane) or the wings or even the propellers? Thinking about such things can create a wow factor once you learn the ins and outs of a complex component.
But at Muskogee Technology (MT), manufacturing airplane parts using composites is just everyday business.
Composites are formed by combining materials together to form an overall structure that is sturdier than using individual components. However, each individual component remains separate within the material. For example, if one person tried to hold up a heavy beam in the air by himself, he probably wouldn’t last very long. But if 100 people stood next to the original holder, the combined strength of all 100 people would keep the beam in place, all the while each person was exerting his or her own individual strength.
One such individual material is carbon fiber, which is a super durable, strong yet lightweight plastic held together by fibers. Carbon fibers are typically used in aerospace, automotive and civil engineering products.
MT’s Director of Marketing, Mal McGhee, described the material as "a fabric-like material, kind of like vinyl. Before it’s molded, you can pull it apart and see all the single fibers that make up a sheet."
Now here's where it gets tricky: Carbon-fiber-reinforced polymers, such as rayon, are composite materials featuring a matrix and a reinforcer. The matrix consists of an epoxy to hold the reinforcement material (the carbon fiber) together to provide strength. This is the type of composite that Muskogee Technology works with the most frequently.
Many carbon fibers are backed with a single layer of fiberglass. After mixing the fiberglass with resin, the carbon fiber is ready to use. These are called pre-preg composites, because they have already been made. Pre-preg materials must be stored in a freezer at zero degrees Fahrenheit or colder.
Now the fabricating begins. MT takes the pre-preg composite and fits it into a mold for whatever a client is needing. In 2013, MT entered into a partnership with GKN Aerospace North America. This began with MT storing inventory for GKN and has morphed into creating fuselage kits for GKN airplanes. Once the composite is molded, it is then heated in an autoclave oven to harden. For smaller pieces, the molds are placed into bags and vacuum sealed.
Airbus, Boeing and GKN all use a majority percentage of composite materials in their aircraft, according to an online source.
"Back in February, we received our quality certification, allowing us to go into full production cutting composite materials," Accounting Manager Lou Roberts said.
Aerospace is increasingly turning to using composites and MT is ahead of the game. So the next time you step on an airplane, look around, touch the walls and think about what exactly is holding you up in the air. It just might have come from Muskogee Technology.