Airbus looks to South Africa in its search for titanium


As every Airbus aircraft uses dozens of tons of titanium, the European aircraft manufacturer is looking for cheaper production processes and has turned its attention to South Africa, which already manufactures components for several Airbus aircraft.

Airbus has partnered with several local companies to supply parts, including Aerosud, Denel-Saab Aerostructures and Cobham Omnipless, and the company last year committed more than R4 billion worth of work to South Africa over the next decade.
“We believe that SA has some unique skills and we will continue to explore how we can expand our industrial partnerships in the country,” Simon Ward, Airbus Vice-president for international cooperation, said last year after the multibillion rand contracts were signed. He added that South African aerospace had developed aggressive innovation during the apartheid years, which now gave it the edge over many other countries, AllAfrica reports.

Ward was particularly excited about technology being developed by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), which would allow titanium products to be produced directly from the raw material, bypassing expensive and energy-intensive refining. The CSIR project is being funded by the Department of Science and Technology (DST).
“If the CSIR succeeds, that will be a major leap forward in technology, which will have major implications in terms of logistic costs and design of titanium products for the aerospace industry,” Ward said last year. He told Engineering News this week that the DST is supportive of getting the research done and that the department is expected to finalise the funding by the end of the current financial year.

Airbus is currently involved in the titanium technology project, as it looks to secure its vital sources of titanium. Around 140 tons of titanium needed ordered for the manufacture of an Airbus A380 superjumbo, including about 26 tons in the engines. The smaller A340 requires 32 tons while the A330 needs 18 tons and the A320 12 tons.

Dale King, Airbus senior manager for international research and technology partnerships, notes that a new low-cost continuous titanium powder production process has successfully passed laboratory trials and that it will now need to progress to a pilot-plant stage, Engineering News reports. Under heat and pressure, the powder can be used to create strong, lightweight items ranging from armour plating to components for the aerospace, transportation, and chemical processing industries.

Titanium powder technology could translate into significant cost savings in the aerospace industry as it would be far cheaper than current production methods, such as the Kroll process. The latter is complex and expensive as it uses numerous other costly metals in the production process. Once the titanium powder process is perfected, the metal could become as common as aluminium.

The titanium powder process was first developed at the University of Cambridge in 1996/1997, where it is known as the FFC Cambridge process for producing metals and alloys. According to Titanium Exposed, the process will be radically cheaper than the Kroll method – a 5 000 ton per year production plant using the Kroll process will cost around £400m or more, while a plant based on the FFC process will cost in the region of £50 million.

Although Ward describes South African private companies as “extremely aggressive” in innovation, some obstacles to cooperation remain. The country’s distance from aircraft assembly lines in Europe might limit the scale of activities.
“If you are taking Western materials and bring it all the way to South Africa, add some work to it and then ship it all back to Europe, it is quite difficult to finance,” Ward said. “So really, there are some niche markets where Airbus would like to grow [in South Africa], such as titanium.”

At the moment Airbus has contracts on A320 and A350 components, which on their own come to R500 million over the next 10 years. The A350 work orders, contracted through primary supplier Spirit AeroSystems, include the design and making of track cans and frame clips that will require Aerosud to establish new production facilities and techniques. Aerosud continues to make track cans and a range of parts for the A320 and will do so for at least another five years. In addition, Denel Saab Aerostructures is making parts for the A400m, and Cobham Omnipless is providing satellite communication equipment to Airbus.

Apart from manufacturing, Airbus also has research partnerships with the University of Stellenbosch, the University of Cape Town, the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) and the Cape Peninsula University of Technology.

King told Engineering News that Airbus hopes to expand its South African research involvement in 2011 and include more universities and new projects. Projects under consideration include titanium machining modelling (led by Wits), as well as fluid structure modelling from the University of Pretoria.

Some research projects already under way include studies on the potential use of flax and other natural fibres for manufacturing composite panels for aircraft cabin components, the development and evaluation of alternative fuels, research on flight control systems, including future in-flight refuelling, and the use of smart materials for control surfaces.
“I think we can do a lot more,” Ward said. “South Africa is a place of innovation and of cheerful enthusiasm.”