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Composites Taking Flight (Part 2): Supply Chain Woes

September 19, 2019

Sourcing Challenges and Delivery Delays 

The Boeing 787 Dreamliner is an aircraft that uses composite materials The much-anticipated delivery of the first Boeing 787 Dreamliner was fraught with delays and occurred three years behind schedule.  

A critical issue contributing to these delays involved Boeing’s supply chain. The inability to receive necessary parts and components on time seriously hindered production lines. 
Vice President of Aircraft Materials and Structures at Boeing Commercial Airplanes, John Byrne, highlighted the issues of composite supply chains at the 2014 CompositesWorld Carbon Fiber Conference.  

Bryne observed that the composite industry was relatively ill-equipped to meet the material and production needs of Boeing in its manufacturing of the 787 Dreamliner. Citing standardization in the metals industry, Byrne implored a need for a more “metal-like” organization in the composite material supply chain. 

The difficulties of composite supply chains arise from factors like high demand, limited carbon fiber production and supply, and the fact that composites have strict handling and storage requirements. 

A Demanding Material

clean room for composites handlingFRPs are complicated to manage. Labor intensive and equipment heavy to produce, they require cutting tables, engineering software, storage carousels, and freezers, amongst other space-and-resource-taking machinery. Proper storage and handling demands impeccable clean rooms that are: 

  • Temperature and humidity controlled between 65⁰F with <63% humidity and 75⁰F with <46% humidity
  • Free of dust and other particulates
  • Implemented with air filtration and pressurization systems
  • Compliant with a host of other parameters

After pre-impregnation, where the dry fiber is impregnated with resin, the material must be frozen to maintain its chemical and handling properties. Delivery needs to be temperature-controlled, as varying shelf lives affect how long FRP materials can be frozen, out of refrigeration, and held under vacuum bags before autoclave curing. 

Once ready for custom shape cutting, efficient material use is essential to avoid waste. Without engineering software and precision cutting equipment, maximizing the amount of usable material in a composite sheet is a challenge. 

The Need for a Better Supply Chain

The issues that composite materials present in sourcing, storage, transportation, and efficient use translate to a need for complex and rigorous management. For OEMs wanting to focus on production, it becomes an obstruction that pulls resources away from their core businesses.

Still, a healthy supply chain is essential to manufacturer productivity. In an article for Supply Dynamics, Trevor Stansbury underscores the critical importance of composite supply chains for manufacturers: 

"The reality is that companies compete and are valued, in part, on the basis of their supply network’s performance. In other words, companies no longer compete against companies; supply chains compete against supply chains."

While OEMs are the beating heart of the aerospace industry, supply chains are the veins delivering the material needed to function. 

Fortunately, there are steps manufacturers can take to optimize their composite supply chain and secure a steady stream of productivity.

To find out what they are, read the third and final article in this series: Top 3 Components of a Healthy Composites Supply Chain

 


Wesco Composite Management Services helps bring efficiencies to aircraft manufacturing processes. Learn more.