Friday, July 06, 2007

Plastic Comes Of Age In Renton

A fine little girl
She waits for me
She's as plastic as she can be
She paints her face
With plastic goo
And wrecks her hair
With some shampoo
Plastic people
Oh, baby, now you're such a drag
I hear the sound of marching feet...
down Sunset Boulevard to Crescent Heights...a
nd Pandora's box...
We are confronted with...a vastQuantity of...Plastic people...
Take a day and walk around
Watch the Nazi's
Run your town
Then go home and check yourself
You think we're singing'Bout someone else
But you're Plastic people
Oh, Baby, now
You're such a drag
-Frank Zappa

Remember the scene in the graduate where the guy buttonholes Dustin Hoffman and tells him "Plastics"? Cue the wave of hippie revulsion.

These ideas were an anthem for a generation. Plastics were considered down market, cheap, throwaway things to be tolerated until we could get our mitts on steel, aluminum, leather, walnut and glass.

While all this was going on, the folks who paid attention to such things were quietly improving plastic material technology and what they have wrought is to be unveiled to the public in Renton a few days hence.

And what plastic it is!-pound for pound stronger than anything that airplanes have ever been made out of before.

Carbon fiber reinforced plastic (hereinafter CFRP) is set to take its well earned place among the best engineered materials we work with daily. CFRP starts with synthetic cloth that is baked, carbonized, and impregnated with epoxy resins before it is formed, vacuum bagged, and cooked in an oven-at which point the epoxy resins fuse the entire mass together into light, strong, flexible structural material.

The idea is not that much different from the fiberglass Uncle Sid used to patch the boat where he'd hit a stump on the shallow side of the lake, but the strength of the material is a quantum leap forward.

The art in utilizing this material is in laying up the cloth before bagging and baking it. Suitably shaped, wing spars and structure as well as skin can be fabricated in new and efficient ways. In addition, primary shapes of structure need not be assembled out of bits-they can be monolithic architecture, as the B787 fuselage sections are.

So what we're going to see develop as the B787 moves from the rollout to flight test and then to production on a grand scale, is nothing less than a tectonic shift in the way aircraft are built and assembled, not only because of the material itself but also because of how it can be utilized to construct things. I've said it before: this changes everything.

And that's the difference between the B787 and the competition's proposal(not to mention that one exists and the other doesn't).

On the one hand the technological shift is comprehensive and addresses the fundamental advantages that are gained in the ways the material can be used. What the competition's offering is a reluctant half measure, either because they don't trust the material or they aren't capable of utilizing it or they don't have the engineering knowhow or it's NIH-not invented here.

While we're on that subject, the conventional wisdom we hear is "Oh well-we'll carefully evaluate the B787 and make sure that all the mistakes Boeing makes won't be made by us, and then we'll really show you how it ought to be done! Being later is therefore being better."

It isn't. The mercurial Nathan Bedford Forrest once opined that victory belongs to he who 'gits thar fustest with the mostest' and that's as true today as it was 150 years ago.

Being late to the dance is just that-being late to the dance. What's worse is that what the competition intends is a half measure-it breaks no new ground in fabrication methods. When the A350 enters service five years hence, assuming that Airbus stays on task, it will be a good competent aircraft that is a day late and a dollar short.


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