The Future of Advanced Air Mobility

Solvay and GKN Step Up Work on Thermoplastic Materials and Manufacturing Processes

Solvay and GKN Aerospace have extended their collaboration to develop thermoplastic composite (TPC) materials and manufacturing processes to make aerostructures. Both companies are suppliers to new eVTOL vehicles, such as Vertical Aerospace's  VX4 model, as well as supporting multiple other civil and military aircraft programs.

Over the past six years, Solvay and GKN have achieved technical breakthroughs such as combining TPC and a one-shot manufacturing process to develop a lighter and more competitively priced wing rib and using automated fiber placement for the first time on fuselage panels. Solvay is a preferred TPC supplier for GKN.

The partners will now focus on using new TPC materials and processes for advanced air mobility aircraft and other commercial aviation applications, according to Fabrizio Ponte, the head of the Solvay Thermoplastic Platform business unit. He said that they will focus on high-rate manufacturing for medium- and large-size structures.

“Lightweight materials will play a key role in the journey to more sustainable aviation, and working together has strengthened our technology leadership in thermoplastic innovation,” said Arnt Offringa, director of GKN’s Global Technology Center in the Netherlands.

Solvay’s customer engineering manager, Alejandro Rodriguez, told FutureFlight that much of the company’s development work is aimed at expanding the use of new materials by making them stronger, lighter, and more resistant to high temperatures. “A lot of the new business cases [in advanced air mobility] rely on using composites for their lower weight, but because production volumes [for eVTOL aircraft] could be much higher, we need to find ways to increase production rates and lower costs. Thermoplastics allow us to expand these envelopes.”

Currently, it can take eight to 12 hours to complete an open cure of a structure in an autoclave. However, techniques such as press warming could increase throughput rates by as much as 10 to 20 times so that serial, rather than batch, production would be realistic.

Aerostructures that could use Solvay’s composites might include battery enclosures. Lisa Walton, aerospace market segment manager at Solvay’s facility in Anaheim, California, said that the company is working on new materials specifically for these units. “We’re working with manufacturers to understand the load and safety cases to consider for thermal runoffs and how long loads and pressures can be sustained, and this involves a lot of thermal and mechanical testing,” she said.

GKN's chief technology officer Russ Dunn told a press conference in London on Monday that the UK-based group is now applying new lightweight composites for cutting-edge technology projects, such as Airbus's Wing of Tomorrow and Stunning Fuselage. He said the new materials and production processes have the potential to reduce production costs by 30 percent, cycle times by 60 percent and energy output during the manufacturing process by as much as 80 percent.

Solvay’s engineering teams are also now giving more attention to the materials and structures that will be required to support new hydrogen propulsion systems. The company is working on new materials for the tanks that will contain both liquid and gaseous fuels.

In October 2022, Solvay and Wichita State University's National Institute for Aviation Research opened their new Manufacturing Innovation Center. The facility is located within the NIAR's Advanced Technologies Lab for Aerospace Systems. Solvay is competing with other composite materials specialists, such as Toray, which is a supplier for eVTOL programs including SkyDrive's SD-05 and the Lilium Jet.