A Navy aerospace material research and engineering director has concerns about the level of investment in new advanced materials.
``In the composites industry, I am not seeing nearly the level of innovation that I would like to see,'' Dale Moore said in an office interview at the Naval Air Systems Command's Patuxent River site. ``It has to do with resin chemistries and fibers.''
Moore recalled early development of the U.S. Air Force's Advanced Tactical Fighter. ``It seemed there was an innovative material coming out almost every week,'' he said.
Now, in early stages of the Defense Department's massive Joint Strike Fighter program, ``we are using all the same materials that have been qualified on other systems,'' Moore said.
He thinks the JSF program lost an opportunity.
``To me, it doesn't make any sense at all that there wasn't a tremendous initiative to innovate enabling materials that could be feathered into that development program,'' he said.
The Air Force contemplated ATF concepts in the early 1970s, solicited proposals in 1985 and awarded the program, now the F/A-22 Raptor air dominance and strike fighter, to Lockheed Martin Corp.'s aeronautics business segment in 1991. An Air Force squadron in Nevada is testing and evaluating early models.
For the JSF, the Defense Department awarded two concept-demonstration contracts in 1996 and selected a Lockheed-Martin-led team in 2001 for engineering and manufacturing development of 22 aircraft. The multirole F-35 passed a March preliminary design review and is en route to expected eventual production of up to 6,000 aircraft.
For the F-35, Moore's group handles research, engineering and test evaluation support for the Navy and Marine Corps versions.
Regarding materials, ``what it all comes down to are the entry barriers to get on these platforms,'' Moore said, listing the barriers as extensive material testing requirements and ``an upfront investment in people.''
Without supplying the answers, he raised two questions: ``Why aren't we getting good innovations out there that provide us enabling performance and affordability advantages'' and ``how do we reduce the barriers to entry of these innovations?''
In general, the military aviation community ``had a procurement holiday for a number of years ... but we are entering into an era when we are building lots of systems,'' he said. ``The old ones are fatiguing and wearing out,'' and, as a result, the repair, maintenance and overhaul costs are ``becoming prohibitively expensive.''
He made an analogy. A composite material requiring a six-hour-cure cycle plus ramping up and down can push a procedure into two shifts.
``If I had a material with less [of a time requirement], I could do a whole cure cycle within the single shift,'' Moore said. ``I am saving money.''
Moore wondered whether another material might supplant carbon-fiber technology. ``I think we can get more out of carbon fiber,'' he said, and ``I am bullish on nanotechnology and where that can go for the longer term.''
Innovators work on numerous emerging nanotechnologies. ``The key here is the potential of developing future composite systems that incorporate nanotechnology both in polymer chemistry as well as the fiber technology in integrated systems design,'' Moore said. ``What we might start to see are hybrids of nanotechnology and current fiber technology.''
Moore is bullish on polymers, particularly thermosets, which he said provide the best performance at the lowest cost in a finished part. Thermoplastics show durability and damage tolerance in some applications but, too often, have not lived up to promises of lower cost.
Moore's materials research organization includes 250 people nationwide. Navair Patuxent River employs 7,600 civilians and 3,100 active-duty military personnel, conducts more than 20,000 hours of flight tests per year and occupies 13,800 acres.