The future of aircraft: Plastics

From the International Herald Tribune:

Facing mounting public pressure to become more fuel efficient and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the airlines are seeking to replace older jets in their fleets with lighter-weight, less-polluting planes. Increasingly, that means jets that replace traditional aluminum components with plastic-based composites that can significantly reduce the weight of an aircraft.

Aircraft makers, eager for orders, are responding with new designs that make more and more use of these composite materials – much as automakers, sporting goods manufacturers and others have profited handsomely from the revolutionary properties of plastics.

Neat! Aeroplanes that are lighter and more fuel-efficient can’t hurt. Aeroplanes that are built with less shit that needs to be mined out of the ground can’t hurt, either. However, when it comes to our beverages I do know that aluminium cans (Americans: don’t be afraid of vowels. Vowels are your friends) go ‘around’ more than plastic bottles. I wonder if it’s the same for Aircraft? I also know plastics are as petro-chemical as anything else. And a composite plastic, especially one purpose-built for aircraft (so that, say, tail sections don’t come off mid-flight) is unlikely to be all that re-usable.

The article also stated that

…composites can simplify the production process because they allow for the creation of larger, more integrated parts. According to Boeing, this could eventually help speed up its assembly lines by as much as 40 percent. And since composite sections are cast into precise molds, they do not, like aluminum, have to be cut and shaped from sheets of bulk material, which eliminates a lot of waste.

But bigger sections, specially molded, also means that dings, etc. need more expensive repairs, no? And, like cars, replacement rather than panel-beating (allowing for the fact that we’re comparing cars and aeroplanes, and I know very little about either).

To the extent that I’m an economist, this is what we do – we’re walking ‘other hands’. If we’d been around at the time, people would be so busy stoning us to death they’d never even think Socrates was obnoxious. But I read a lot of arguments that all have ‘other hands’. I’m welcome, I know, to start my own newspaper and do my own research. These flipsides just strike me as interesting comparisons worth making, to see just how great a gain we’re making. I think the last line of the article said volumes.

“There is no going back,” said Wheeldon of BGC Partners. “Plastic has finally made its mark in the big toys.”


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