June 16, 2011
Alcoa Develops Breakthrough Technologies That Lower Cost, Weight and Production Risk of New Airplanes

Alcoa has announced that it has developed a completely new set of aluminum-based solutions for the aerospace market that will allow airframers to build dramatically lighter and lower-cost short-range airplanes at significantly lower production risk than composite-intensive planes.


The new solutions, which combine new alloys and advanced structural technologies, use Alcoa sheet, plate, forgings and hard alloy extrusion products across aircraft structures, including airplane wings and fuselage elements. The new technologies:

- lower the weight of the plane by up to 10% vs. composite-intensive planes;

- lower the cost to manufacture, operate and repair planes by up to 30% vs. composite-intensive planes, and at significantly lower production risk;

- allow for a 12% increase in fuel efficiency, on top of the 15% from new engines; and

- deliver passenger comfort features equivalent to composite-intensive planes, such as higher cabin pressure, large windows and higher humidity.

“The decisions made in the past decade to build the first composite-intensive aircraft were a huge wake-up call for us,” said Mick Wallis, President of Alcoa North American Rolled Products who is responsible for Alcoa’s aerospace sheet and plate products. “In hindsight it was the right decision for the time – when advanced aluminum solutions were not as developed -- but our technology solutions have made quantum leaps since those decisions.

“And it’s important to keep in mind that the mission requirements of short-range airplanes are dramatically different than those of longer-range planes,” added Wallis. “With these new solutions we are confident we can add value to airframers in their short-range offerings, just as we have proven with longer-range planes…and the market research we’ve conducted says we are not alone in that belief.”

The combination of Alcoa solutions results in short range aircraft that meet or exceed airframer targets for corrosion resistance, aerodynamic drag, maintenance requirements, and fuel efficiency along with improved buy-to-fly ratios. In fact, the improvements developed by Alcoa for a new short-range aircraft can generate up to a 12% increase in fuel efficiency on top of the 15% improvement from new engines.

Included in the new solutions portfolio are advanced alloys and third-generation aluminum lithium alloys that result in up to 7% lower density in major structural applications along with critically important corrosion resistance. Alcoa’s most-recent aluminum lithium alloys were selected for large commercial aircraft plate applications and are being used on planes about to enter the marketplace. These newest aluminum lithium alloys provide additional enhanced performance.

New improvements in aerodynamics for skin sheet developed by Alcoa reduce skin friction drag by up to 6%. In addition, new advanced structural technologies using forged, extruded, and rolled products enable increased wing aspect ratio for improved fuel savings, provide up to 10 times the damage tolerance vs. conventional alloys, and allow increased cabin pressurization for enhanced passenger comfort, on par with all new aircraft structures in development today.

“As we began work on these new solutions, we wanted to ensure they contribute to all four phases of a plane’s life cycle,” said Eric Roegner, President of Alcoa Forgings and Extrusions. “In the first phase, when it is built, we will lower manufacturing and assembly costs and reduce program risks for the airframer through established high volume supply chains and reduced investment requirements via existing infrastructure…and aircraft operators want the reduced risk associated with timely delivery.

“In the second phase, when customers fly the plane, the lower weight and aerodynamic technologies will increase fuel efficiency by up to 12% on their own and up to 27% when new engines are factored in,” said Roegner.

Wallis added, “In the third phase, as airlines maintain the plane, we will lower costs because of enhanced corrosion resistance that helps with emerging inspection interval requirements. And, in the last phase -- the end of life or retirement of the plane -- aluminum’s infinite recyclability puts it head and shoulders above other materials in that it can be turned back into useful products again and again.”

Research Findings

In addition to the positive reception the new solutions are receiving from airframers wrestling with material choices, Alcoa conducted market research across the industry – including tier one players, airlines, maintenance/MRO and other leasing companies – to determine perceptions of choice for primary structure applications, outscoring composites in favorability.

Perhaps most telling, the more people understood the details, the more favorably they viewed aluminum for next generation aircraft structures vs. composites. Nearly 3 out of 4 of the technical and design respondents surveyed had a favorable perception of aluminum as the primary structural material for new aircraft vs. 54% for composites. Among management and commercial constituencies, the results showed the opposite.

When the ultimate question was asked -- how likely would you be to recommend Alcoa’s solutions if they could deliver a 10% weight reduction, lower risk, and were 30% less expensive to manufacture, operate and maintain -- 75% of respondents said they would recommend aluminum structures.

About Alcoa Aerospace

Alcoa Aerospace is comprised of 4 businesses with operations across the world totaling approximately $3 billion in revenues and #1 share positions in their markets: Alcoa Global Rolled Products and Alcoa Forgings and Extrusions serving the structures market; and Alcoa Fastening Systems and Alcoa Power and Propulsion. Alcoa’s aerospace solutions run from nose to tail and from wing-tip to wing-tip. Alcoa has been at the forefront of every major milestone in aerospace history based on its commitment to continually innovate and a “beyond materials” philosophy – where materials, structures, and designs work in concert to provide optimal solutions for customers.