The focus on carbon fiber has also led a number of supplier companies to develop expertise in designing and manufacturing components out of this material. One major production and research center in the south belongs to SACESA, which has been in existence since 1995. The company has produced structural parts for Airbus, for EADS-CASA's military planes, and most recently for Boeing's B-777; the company's research department has developed proprietary tools to analyze and test the structural integrity of these parts. Through its success in designing and manufacturing major composite pieces, produced both in fiber molds and in sandwich panels in a honeycomb structure, SACESA predicts 33 percent growth this year.
In the past five years in Andalusia alone, the turnover of all these support companies has nearly tripled. One of the issues with carbon fiber production is keeping costs down. "Carbon fiber itself was very difficult to obtain— there were few suppliers," says Jesús Marcos, director of Tecnalia Aerospace. "It cost a great deal, and there were very unique applications. Today, there are more suppliers, and the challenge remains the cost of production."
SENER, an engineering technology and consulting company, is developing automated systems to lay down textiles, reducing the manpower and therefore the cost. Today, most of the work is still done by hand. "Typically, the manufacturing system has been very intensive and manual," says Rafael Quintana, director of aerospace for SENER. "It's like a big fashion shop; there are literally hundreds of people placing those composite textiles into the molds and so on."
EADS-CASA focuses on a similar issue in carbon fiber production. Through research on the best methods for designing and producing curved and complex carbon fiber airplane products, scientists settled on the technique of simple stitching. Employing people to do the stitching would be prohibitively expensive, however, so engineers created industrial robots to do the handiwork— at up to 100 stitches per minute. After sheets are joined together, they're draped in alternate directions over a mold and then pressed at very high heats to harden.
SENER specializes in designing composite material structures for aircraft. Recently, the company worked with SACESA to create the belly fairing for the Airbus 380— the lower section of the aircraft, where the air conditioning and the serving equipment are stored. "It's a very large structure to be made in a composite material, and it demanded special techniques for the design," says Quintana. "You need to lay different textiles in specific positions in order for the fibers to provide the strength and resistance for the finest finished piece."
The company designs parts requested by large manufacturers such as Airbus. "They make the overall systems design, and specify the different components they require in composites," says Quintana. "We figure out a way to make those parts."
"Spain is one of the leaders in Europe in terms of carbon fiber due to our experience in the sector," says Francisco Mencía, administrator of Aeropolis, an aerospace technology park in Andalusia.
Nanotechnology, a hot field for a variety of boundary-pushing innovations in science, has a place in the manufacture of carbon fiber aircraft parts as well. Nanoparticles added to synthetic material can immensely increase the finished product's strength and resiliency. Nanoparticles may also serve as a fire retardant, increasing the material's ability to withstand heat and burning without generating toxic gases. These technologies are in the early stages, however, and still cost too much to gain widespread use.
Tecnalia Aerospace is working with carbon nanotubes, mixed with alloys of other metals, to dissipate heat as efficiently as possible. Another future application of nanotechnology, perhaps more suited to the world of science fiction in the public's eye, is the creation of invisible aircraft. "It's complicated," says Marcos of Tecnalia Aerospace, "but basically these particles would absorb some specific frequencies— radar, or visual frequencies. So when the frequency is absorbed, the aircraft would become basically invisible." He explains the particles could be nano-sized or slightly larger, but this technology is all still under investigation.
Tecnalia Aerospace is also working on a combination of advanced materials, advanced heat dissipation, and flexible electronics to create systems such as the electronics box for aircraft. In their design, the electronics could become part of the structure of the plane, significantly reducing the system's weight and volume.
SENER is researching the use of carbon nanotubes in a flexible composite that could enable an aircraft's wings to literally change shape during flight. "It's a totally new technology," says Quintana. "Right now, any change in wings, such as landing flaps that are extended in order to increase the wing surface, is done by moving rigid surfaces. The idea will be for the shape of the wing to change without moving parts."
Despite its maturity as a composite, carbon fiber remains a relatively young addition to aviation. "The industry's experience with composites has not been that long— only about 15 years, which for the aeronautic industry is a short period of time," says Quintana. The products have certainly been tested for safety, but Quintana says the industry still is eyeing the materials' performance over the next decade.