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THE USE OF METALS IN AIRCRAFT MANUFACTURE

August 27th 2016

The metals used in the aircraft manufacturing industry include steel, aluminium and titanium with each possessing certain qualities that make them ideal for this use. Aircraft construction demands materials that are both durable and lightweight, as well as being able to withstand severe pressure at high altitudes, and exposure to the elements.

An aircraft is built with a number of major components such as fuselage, wings, undercarriage etc. and different components can be made of different materials, depending on what the function of the component is and what characteristics are most important for it to be able to work correctly.

Aluminium

The Wright brothers' first aeroplane, which first took off in 1903, had a 30 pound aluminium block in the engine. Since then, aluminium has become a highly popular material in the manufacture of aeroplanes due to a combination of low density and high strength properties making it ideal for mass-produced commercial aircraft. Aircraft manufacturers prefer to use high-strength aluminium alloys (primarily alloy 7075) to strengthen aluminium aircraft structures. Alloy 7075 has copper, magnesium and zinc added for extra strength. Aluminium typically comprises around 80 percent of an aircraft's weight (unloaded) and because it is highly resistant to corrosion, it can be left unpainted. At high temperatures, however, aluminium can lose strength so it is not used on the skin surface of an aircraft.

Steel

Steel can be up to three times stronger than aluminium, although it is also heavier. It's strength, hardness and resistance to heat make it ideal for use on the skin surface of the aircraft and in the landing gear and it typically comprises around 11-13 percent of the materials used in an aircraft. The durability of steel is its most important characteristic in aeroplane manufacture and although it is heavier than other materials like aluminium it is often used for hinges, cable and fasteners where its strength is key.

Titanium

Although expensive, titanium is commonly used in aircraft manufacture due to its excellent properties including high strength, high temperature resistance and high corrosion resistance. Titanium is commonly used in a variety of different parts on an aircraft both on the exterior and in the engine. It can be found in the wings and landing gear as well as the housing, fan blades and pumps within the engine. As titanium becomes more widely used the cost is expected to drop which would make it the metal of choice in the aerospace industry. Presently, the costs associated with titanium mean it is not feasible to use for widespread use throughout the aircraft.

Nickel Alloys

Nickel alloys are popular in aerospace engineering due to their ability to resist high temperatures and corrosion they are structurally tough and have fantastic creep resistance properties. They are often used to make the turbines of aeroplane engines due to the immense heat this part of the engine is exposed to. Because nickel alloys retain their strength at elevated temperatures they are perfect for this function. In addition to this, you can find nickel alloys in the exhaust valves, thermostat rods, tanks and piping for liquefied gas storage. 

Composite Materials

Whilst metals play a dominant role in aircraft manufacturing, composite materials, which consist of a combination of metals and non-metals, have gained prominence in recent years. Carbon fibre-reinforced composites, for instance, offer a high strength-to-weight ratio, making them suitable for components like wings and tail surfaces. The use of composites helps reduce the overall weight of the aircraft, contributing to improved fuel efficiency and performance.

Copper Alloys

Copper and its alloys are employed in various electrical and electronic components of aircraft. Wiring, connectors, and electrical systems often utilise copper due to its excellent conductivity. Additionally, copper-nickel alloys are employed in hydraulic systems, offering corrosion resistance and durability in environments where exposure to fluids is common. The reliability of electrical and hydraulic systems is crucial for the safe operation of aircraft, and the properties of copper contribute to their efficiency and longevity.

Magnesium Alloys

Magnesium alloys, known for their low density and high strength, find applications in aircraft components where weight reduction is a critical factor. While not as widely used as aluminium, magnesium alloys are employed in certain parts of the aircraft, such as gearbox housings and seat frames, to achieve weight savings without compromising structural integrity. The corrosion resistance of magnesium alloys is improved through various treatments, making them suitable for specific aerospace applications.

Advancements in Metal Alloys

Ongoing research and development in materials science continue to lead to advancements in metal alloys used in aircraft manufacturing. New alloys with improved properties, such as increased strength, enhanced fatigue resistance, and better corrosion resistance, are continually being developed to meet the evolving requirements of the aerospace industry. These advancements contribute to the development of more fuel-efficient, durable, and environmentally friendly aircraft.

Metals in Aircraft Manufacturing

The uses of metals in aircraft manufacturing are diverse and essential for the construction of safe, reliable, and efficient aircraft. From the lightweight and formable aluminium alloys used in the airframe to the high-strength titanium alloys in critical engine components, each metal plays a specific role in ensuring the overall performance and safety of an aircraft. As technology advances, the aerospace industry will likely continue to explore new materials and manufacturing techniques to further enhance the capabilities of aircraft in terms of fuel efficiency, environmental impact, and overall reliability. The synergy of various metals and composite materials will remain at the forefront of aircraft design, pushing the boundaries of what is possible in aviation.

 

William Rowland are industry leaders in providing high quality metals, alloys, and metal powders to a wide range of industries, including aerospace, automotive, defence, and more.

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