Safety and performance lie at the very heart of the aerospace industry; it is highly regulated and closely monitored by government authorities such as the FAA in the US, EASA in Europe, and the CAA in the UK as well as by private and public watchdogs around the world. Any failure in an aircraft’s safety procedures or operational performance can lead to costly delays, possible investigation and censure, and carries the potential of fatally damaging the reputation, and brand, of a carrier or aircraft manufacturer.
It is well understood throughout the industry, therefore, that safety, performance, and brand assurance rely in no small part on the consistent and continued operation of any and every part of an aircraft. From the wings, rudder and engines, down to the very smallest and most hidden components, each piece plays an important part in ensuring the safe and timely flight records upon which carriers and manufacturers alike stake their reputations.
Any modern aircraft is a highly complex machine. Even as technology improves and advances in design are made, a passenger aircraft is one of the most complex transportation vehicles in use. A modern Boeing 777, for example, has an average of three million parts while the Boeing 747-400 had closer to six million.
Average passengers may focus their attention on the larger pieces of an aircraft, but industry insiders are well aware that a problem with any of these parts can be enough to keep a plane on the ground, cause it to fail a safety inspection, or just ruin a passenger’s journey and cause an airline to lose customers. Consequently, time, effort, and money are all invested in designing and creating even the smallest parts, from seals to gaskets, and from tubing to interior fittings, to maintain an aircraft manufacturer’s and an airline’s reputation for keeping passengers airborne and keeping them safe.
Seals may not be obvious to passengers, but they are crucial to an aircraft’s operation (see fig. 1). Seals are called upon to perform in some of the most challenging conditions known to commercial applications. From high pressures and temperatures to chemical degradation and erosion, they are some of the most important parts on an aircraft. If a seal fails, it can compromise the plane’s performance.
When developing a seal, aircraft manufacturers need to evaluate each application to determine the type and composition of materials they should employ. Often, especially for complex seal requirements like those on flaps, the best options available are engineered solutions that include fabric reinforcement or a compound of several materials with different properties in order to improve seal performance.
Unlike single material solutions that are limited in their performance range, engineered solutions can be customized for different applications in order to provide the precise characteristics required. Wing seals, for example need to be resistant to corrosion, and so coatings or protective materials can be added to the composite that safeguard the seals. Other layers may be added to provide extra protection against wear and abrasion from airflow.
Window and Door Gaskets
In addition to safety, modern aircraft, despite extreme external temperatures and pressures, are required to maintain a pleasant ambient environment while in flight. Windows must still be able to show the view and door hatches must still be able to open and close quickly and easily.
Given the danger of fast decompression if the aircraft’s integrity is not maintained, manufacturers need to employ a wide portfolio of high-performance gaskets, each tailored in response to specific uses and needs to ensure that windows, and windshields as well as the cabin and emergency doors perform as expected and keep passengers safe (see fig. 2).
Although an aircraft’s emergency oxygen supply rarely needs to be deployed, carriers must be sure that the bags and tubing will function as required at a moment’s notice. Tubing, in particular, can still deteriorate over time. It’s prone to losing its flexibility and kink rather than bend smoothly, leading to reduced or irregular airflow, and taking on an aged and unpleasant yellow tinge that looks unsafe.
Manufacturers and design engineers need to specify some of the more recently-developed tubing lines which use materials that retain their clarity over the years. These lines also feature unique designs that prevent kinking and ensure a smooth regular flow of oxygen, reducing risks to passengers and supporting the manufacturer’s reputation as a responsible and safety-conscious organization.
Interior components and fittings surround and interact with a plane’s avionic, electrical, and fluid systems, as well as with passengers’ environment (see fig. 3). From the convenient task of preventing light from filtering in to disturb sleeping passengers to the vital act of ensuring that moisture from condensation does not reach and interfere with the aircraft’s electronics, interior fittings must be customized to meet the exact specifications required for safe and reliable aircraft performance.
Optimal solutions incorporate a wide range of high-performance technologies for interior and floor-to-floor applications. Manufacturers should look for individual solutions that are tailor-made for each application and can offer abrasion and friction resistance where necessary in order to guarantee that components are watertight, airtight, and light-tight.
The Importance of the Right Partner
When considering the right partner to manufacture any of these components, it is critical for an OEM to choose a supplier whose capabilities meet three clear requirements.
First, the partner needs to have a global presence. The aerospace industry is truly global in its reach and compounds need to be developed with global aerospace standards in mind. While partners need to be able to assign a dedicated team to local projects, working closely with the manufacturer, they must also have a strong international presence in order to understand the global environment.
Second, prospective partners must have strong R&D capabilities in order to meet the need for customized solutions that fulfill myriad technical requirements. As the global aviation industry faces increasing pressures to create more fuel-efficient green designs, manufacturers need their suppliers to respond nimbly. This means a supplier must innovate constantly, researching the right materials that will best meet a specific design application.
Finally, given the scale of aviation projects, it is necessary to identify a partner with considerable financial resources. Specifying parts for an aviation project can take up to five years between an initial sales enquiry to final production. Such ventures require a risk-sharing partnership between the manufacturer and vendor.