MIT says there’s a cheaper, faster way to manufacture airplanes

Photo: MIT

Researcher at MIT say that they have developed a new approach to manufacturing complex aerospace components without the massive and expensive infrastructure necessitated by traditional manufacturing.

“If you’re making a primary structure like a fuselage or wing, you need to build a pressure vessel, or autoclave, the size of a two- or three-story building, which itself requires time and money to pressurise,” professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, Brian Wardle, said.

“These things are massive pieces of infrastructure. Now we can make primary structure materials without autoclave pressure, so we can get rid of all that infrastructure.”

A modern airplane’s fuselage is made from multiple sheets of different composite materials. When these layers are stacked and molded into the shape of a fuselage, the structures are wheeled into warehouse-sized ovens and autoclaves, where the layers fuse together to form a resilient, aerodynamic shell.

The new approach means that instead of placing layers of material inside an oven to cure, the researchers essentially wrapped them in an ultrathin film of carbon nanotubes (CNTs).

When they applied an electric current to the film, the CNTs, like a nanoscale electric blanket, quickly generated heat, causing the materials within to cure and fuse together.

This process also speeds up the manufacturing of airplanes and other large, high-performance composite structures, such as blades for wind turbines.

With this technique, the team was able to produce composites as strong as the materials made in conventional airplane manufacturing ovens, using only 1 percent of the energy.