Spurred by high fuel costs and the need to cut weight, the aviation industry has seen the use of composites reach an all-time high. With the introduction of Boeing 787, Airbus A350, A320neo, 737MAX and other new generation aircraft, the MRO industry is currently gearing up to service an increasing number of airliners employing a much higher share of composite materials than they represented some 20 years ago. This process has been naturally followed by the investments into new equipment and technical training. However, is the industry aware of the actual implications of the upcoming changes?
So far the bulk of demand for composite repairs has been driven by such existing “metal” aircraft as Airbus A320s and A330s as well as Boeing 737NGs. However, what has changed in the last years is that composites have evolved from being used in secondary structures to being utilized in primary critical ones such as the fuselage and wing box. All in all, composite material utilization in the industry is currently nearly 10 times greater than it was 25 years ago. However, the credibility of composite repair still depends on the skill of individual staff, as it did a century ago.
“Aviation industry has made real progress in repair quality control, accuracy and uniformity. But for all those advances, composite repair remains awfully dependent on the skills and integrity of the technician who’s physically doing the work,” comments Kestutis Volungevicius, the Head of FL Technics Training. “However, despite the fact that most OEMs have done a fabulous job of designing repair methodologies, the actual application of those repairs is limited to a very, very few companies, and still fewer folks within those companies. Therefore, the process of closing this gap in qualified workforce may prove to be a greater challenge than previously expected.”
Based upon OEM projections, the current generation of large aircraft will see more than 75% reduction in annual structural repair costs due to the application of composite materials and other modern technological solutions. The reality, though, is that total structural repair man-hours will actually increase over the next 10 years, driven by the 737, A320, 777, and A330/340 fleets.
In the meantime, it might make scant sense for an MRO or a carrier to train up technicians on repairs they still rarely employ, especially considering the fact that composite repair training can take up to 3 weeks for advanced repair class. As a result, according to TeamSAI, currently only 3-5% of independent airframe MRO technicians have specialty training and internal certification to perform complex composite repairs. Nevertheless, composites have earned a place in modern aircraft design and require appropriate MRO support. Ironically, however, what has reduced expenses with regard to fuel consumption may indeed increase the price of MRO support.
“To fix sophisticated monolithic composite structures can cost up to three times more than to repair older composites or currently popular metallic ones. Part of the reason for being so is to do with the application of expensive tooling and equipment required, which makes the tooling also unavailable for production use by many MROs. Moreover, as the growing number of employees are trained and the complexity of structures increases, unions are very likely to push for a separate, higher paid, classification. In turn, in the non-union environment, the demand and requirements associated with the skill levels should also determine a rise in salaries. Nevertheless, one has to acknowledge that the composite materials are here to stay. The question is, will the MROs be ready?” says the Head of FL Technics Training.