In a market like the aerospace industry, profit and revenue come from large-scale orders for products which take years to research and develop. The front-end costs of creating just a single new airplane model adds up to millions of dollars and man-hours spent, and a company will only begin seeing a return on their investment five or ten years later, if there is a return at all. With timeframes that large and costs that big, aerospace companies are always looking for ways to make their aircraft lighter, fuel-efficient, and cost-effective to prospective buyers.
One way companies such as Boeing and Airbus accomplish these goals is by turning to building materials such as PEEK to cut weight while still retaining metal-like properties. Created in the 1980s, PEEK (Polyether Ether Ketone) is a thermoplastic belonging to the PAEK family which boasts heat resistance, little to no reaction against harmful chemicals and radiation, and comparable tensile and load strength to that of titanium and steel while being many times lighter.
While you probably won’t see a 787 or an A380 airplane wing made entirely out of PEEK plastics, you can be certain that PEEK is used throughout the craft. Popular use cases for polyether ether ketone consist of small parts such as gaskets, seals, and fittings on either the interior or exterior of the airplane. Even though these items may seem minute in comparison to other aspects of the plane, the craft’s designers and engineers still manage to save plenty of weight by replacing dozens of small items that do not necessarily demand metal as a building material. Several decades ago, fasteners such as threaded bolts would have always been made in some form of steel, but high-strength thermoplastics such as PEEK can now be used instead because it retains the same strength at a fifth of the weight.
Of course, engineers cannot simply change any part from metal to plastic, just because they believe it will save weight. Testing and research in the form of “FEA” (Finite Element Analysis) must take place to ensure that PEEK will hold its own under extreme conditions such as fire, water, and stress. Another way aerospace companies have begun to save money through PEEK is by cutting costs on the R&D side by turning to high-temperature 3D printing. Nowadays, companies can take their design straight from the computer and print out a prototype in PEEK, PEI, or PPSU in a timeframe of a few short hours. Before the advent of high-temperature thermoplastic filament, aerospace firms would have to pay an engineer to design a prototype, outsource the manufacturing to a paid contractor, cough up even more money to ship the part back, and then pay for testing to take place just to find out that their prototype didn’t meet their standards. Luckily, 3D printing can cut out the middleman and allow companies like Boeing to seize the means of production by going from design to testing with no additional strain on funds or time.
The next time you board a plane for your flight to Laguardia Airport, look around the fuselage and think about how much research, development, and engineering goes into each part, even down to the nuts and bolts of the aircraft. With current 3D printing technology, the millions of man-hours spent testing parts could be reduced immensely. Just imagine how the manufacturing process for the aerospace industry will change in a few years’ time.