Composites in Aerospace – How eVTOLs May Change the Future of Transportation

eVTOL over Chicago skyline - Example of Aerospace in Composites

For the 93 million active users of Uber or any ride-sharing service, get ready for the next big paradigm in ride-sharing – eVTOLs. Likely by 2025, pending FAA approval, consumers might be taking commercial flights on electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) vehicles, ready or not. Composites One is ready.

The new commercial transportation service model, also referred to as air taxis, advanced air mobility, or urban air mobility, will operate much like current ride-sharing platforms. It will be managed through a mobile app and transport passengers who want to save time (and who can afford it) within a 150-kilometer radius, with the added benefit of rising above the traffic, literally.

The composites industry has cemented itself as an essential partner to aerospace manufacturing. The eVTOL market will be no different, as lightweight is essential for electric vehicles, especially ones that fly.

Though no formal announcements have been made, CompositesWorld editor, Jeff Sloan, who is at the forefront of the composites industry, says eVTOLs may launch commercially and be FAA certified as soon as 2025 to operate in large cities and metropolitan areas like Los Angeles, Miami, and New York City, with an already proposed air taxi route in Chicago. The initial vehicles will have capacity for four to six passengers, including a pilot. The key will be if cities can build the required infrastructure to accommodate this new form of transportation.

There is skepticism around how quickly and how widespread air taxis will evolve, but Sloan says, “I think there’s no doubt that this is going to happen. The only question is how quickly it will grow.”

While major manufacturers are coming to market with first-generation products, they have hurdles to clear on the regulation side given the industry is carving out a new market in which the FAA has no experience or regulatory precedent.

Composites will drive the evolution of eVTOL

The anticipated rapid evolution of the advanced air mobility segment will put significant pressure on the composites industry to complete FAA certification processes and meet manufacturing requirements and production demands. Due to the expedited time to market, most aircraft manufacturers are using materials that are already qualified for aerospace, such as traditional thermoset prepregs with hand layup and automated fiber placement, all autoclave cured.

CompositesWorld reports that “from primary exterior structures like wings and fuselages to small secondary components like clips and brackets, composites will find applications in every cubic meter of an eVTOL.”

Major eVTOL OEMs, such as Joby Aviation, Archer Aviation, BETA Technologies, Lilium, and Volocopter, are currently building first-generation air taxis – and even working on second-generation pre-production prototypes. The first-generation products will enter the commercial market with a build rate of hundreds per year. Since thermosets have, until now, been the most used resin type in the aerospace industry, and because regulatory authorities are most familiar with thermoset matrices, more than 90 percent of eVTOL OEMs are entering into certification with thermoset-rich platforms, according to CompositesWorld.

Industrialization will present new challenges; thermoplastics will respond

Looking ahead toward the industrialization of the urban air mobility market, manufacturers will be forced to qualify new materials and explore advanced manufacturing methods with second-generation aircraft to meet the growing production rate requirements and demands. With this, we will likely see a transition from snap-cure thermosets to use of fiber-reinforced thermoplastics—out of the autoclave.

As composites processing for eVTOLs moves to out-of-autoclave methods, thermoplastics offer the best option to hit higher production goal rates by reducing cycle times, enabling significantly lighter-weight vehicles, and improving sustainability with their inherent recyclability properties – a major ongoing initiative in the composites industry.

Traditionally, the scrap rate in aerospace manufacturing facilities making large structures can be as high as 40 percent. As municipalities begin charging more for landfilling, there is an increased focus on sustainability. The industry will look closer at recycling thermoplastics and carbon fiber and returning it to the manufacturing ecosystem, also helping to alleviate supply chain issues with these materials.

Thermoplastic composites have been around for many decades, primarily used for relatively small parts. Composite material suppliers like Victrex, Toray, Solvay, Teijin, Arkema, and others are already making thermoplastic prepregs available for the advanced air mobility market, with products that offer quick, minutes-long cycle times vs. needing hours or days to cure.

As utilization increases for larger aerospace structures, it will put added pressure on the composite supply chain, namely for the carbon fiber needed to keep up with demand for fiber-reinforced thermoplastics. Further, the industry will need to develop thermoplastic manufacturing platform solutions for larger composites structures, including larger and automated layup systems to make these parts—and make them efficiently and affordably.

Jason Gibson, Chief Applications Engineer at Composites One, explains, “None of the current flying vehicles have the thermoplastic structure to them, so this is a complete paradigm shift. We’re focused on the thermoplastics side because we believe there’s going to be an enormous amount of demand for it in the next three to five years. When you tie that into the existing 8.4 percent growth of the regular thermoplastics and Aerospace market, a massive tsunami of demand is going to hit. Thermoplastics is the way to go, and we are considering all sides.”

All parties in the aerospace supply chain will experience pressure to meet the expected shift in eVTOL manufacturing, with a heavy emphasis on the composites manufacturing industry as composites are necessary for the success and viability of any aerospace market segment.

The value proposition for Composites One customers

Composites One is focused on supporting advanced air mobility manufacturers to be prepared and ready to meet product demands for this emerging market. Composites One has a dedicated Aerospace Team made up of composites materials experts, representing the leaders in providing materials management and logistics solutions to aerospace manufacturers. Our product, process, and supply chain, and distribution solutions address automation and efficiency to help customers be ready for the industrialization of the eVTOL market.

“The value for Composites One customers is that we are strategically planning to be able to offer access to thermoplastic materials that are already certified and to technical resources to guide them through their manufacturing processes when they begin producing parts in this new commercial aerospace segment,” added Gibson.

“A lot of people say that eVTOL is aerospace quality at automotive quantity. There’s a big gap between what the composites industry is used to doing for the aerospace industry and what is going to be expected of the eVTOL Industry as it matures,” said Sloan. “The good news is we’ve got time to figure it out because it’s not going to happen all at once.”

At Composites One, we strive to be innovative and dependable and to deliver results for our customers. Our Aerospace Team offers expert knowledge of composites materials as the leaders in providing materials management and logistics solutions for the demanding Aerospace market. In Aerospace and beyond, our industry-leading distribution model and Technical Team are ready to support manufacturers that are using composites to design the innovations of tomorrow.