Many countries consider aerospace a strategic industry for reasons of national security, economic strength, and technological advancement. Therefore, it is understandable for a country, especially one of the advanced industrial countries, to seek a competitive position in aerospace. Composites, considered high-tech items, play an important role in achieving a competitive edge in aerospace. The contraction of the U.S. and the world's economy is driving all segments of manufacturing to greater levels of quality at reduced cost; therefore, this study is very timely. The ripple of this contraction is now affecting the Japanese economy as well, with losses and layoffs being reported for the first time since World War II. The aerospace industry can be compared to the automotive industry in the race to achieve greater affordability. Airlines, as well as governments, are focusing on cost. Initial cost is only a part of the equation as the emphasis is shifting to life cycle costs and product disposal costs. It is apparent that the U.S. cannot afford to duplicate applied research between U.S. companies; international cooperation may be required as well. To increase the use of composites in a declining market will require broader applications which are only limited by dollars per fabricated pound. In the overall scheme of advanced polymer composite structures manufacturing, the aerospace segment occupies a unique position. Unlike automobiles and electronics products, aircraft are still considered handmade products; this is especially true for aircraft composite structures. Therefore, the product price per pound is very high. Finished military high performance weapon system costs are nearly $1,000 per pound, and composite airframe parts range from $400 to $700 per pound. Composite parts range from $200 to $400 per pound despite today's low fuel prices. Another unique aspect of the aerospace industry is low production rates. High value and low rates have produced some unique manufacturing methods which have precipitated high labor content operations. The very large non-recurring cost required to introduce composites is a significant issue and a major drawback in both military and commercial applications. Military aircraft manufacturers are faced with more starts and less production. Currently, commercial aircraft must be produced in quantities of 300 to 400 units to recoup the non-recurring costs. Many government-sponsored research programs and internal company research projects have been directed at low-cost composites manufacturing. To date, few have become production-qualified. The failures far outweigh the successes, and have yielded a loss of confidence. The military's successful implementations have been accompanied by high labor content and little automation, due to an unwillingness to compromise performance. In commercial applications, the low fuel prices have outweighed the advantages offered by light weight composites. Yesterday's emphasis on weight savings has been replaced by an emphasis on cost savings and affordability. The cost of manufacturing aircraft parts is a major portion of the total cost; consequently, it is considered an area of potential cost savings. It is timely and relevant, therefore, to evaluate manufacturing technologies in the U.S. and in Japan, both of which are known as technologically advanced countries.

Published: April 1994; WTEC Hyper-Librarian