For those willing to take the time to get the technology right, the aerospace market is not a bad place to be at the moment.
Airbus SAS, Boeing Co. and other aircraft makers are embracing new plastic composite materials, soaring fuel costs are giving polymers openings as metal replacements, and air travel booms in China and India are pushing sales of planes.
But it's not a market that is easily entered: There are stringent flame-resistance and performance requirements, and for thermoplastics, the markets are often suited for low-volume, highly engineered applications.
Booming air travel in China, India and other emerging markets is probably the key factor pushing aircraft demand, according to aviation industry officials and aircraft component suppliers interviewed at the Asian Aerospace International Expo and Congress, held Sept. 3-6 in Hong Kong.
The world's aircraft market had been expected to plateau this year, after hitting bottom in 2001 and growing since, but solid demand from Asia is likely to sustain growth through 2009, according to Ronn Cort, international business manager with sheet extruder Kleerdex Co. LLC in Bloomsburg, Pa.
``Normally 2006-07 would be the year it saturates but [continued growth] is due to the Asian market,'' he said in an interview at the company's booth at the show.
``India, Asia and China have really brought up the U.S. market,'' he said.
An executive with Airbus, one of the two largest passenger aircraft makers in the world, said that demand from emerging markets, particularly China and India, has taken off since 2003.
Airbus projects that China will be the world's second-largest market over the next 20 years, as China's passenger-aircraft fleet triples by 2025, and the country has an estimated 650 million air travel consumers by 2015.
Rival Boeing expects Asia to account for 29 percent of all new aircraft deliveries through 2026.
``It is changing the face of global aviation,'' said John Leahy, Airbus' chief operating officer of customers, at a news conference at the Asian expo.
It's also bringing companies to the market. Airbus will start assembling its A320 airliner in Tianjin, near Beijing; Brazilian jet maker Embraer (Empresa Brasileira de Aeron utica SA) has a joint venture aircraft factory in Harbin, China, with China Aviation Industry Corp. II (Avic II); and Canada's Bombardier Inc. signed a cooperation agreement in June to develop aircraft with China's Avic I.
Against that backdrop, several plastics material suppliers and fabricators at the Hong Kong show were eyeing the aerospace market.
Kleerdex's Cort said the thermoplastic sheet extruder has secured projects replacing metals and light-weighting of parts in things like air decompression vents and food-service trolleys, as airlines increasingly look to cut weight so they can either save on fuel or carry more cargo, he said.
The company also has supplied materials for cockpit seating for Boeing's new 787 Dreamliner, which had very specific flame-resistance requirements, he said.
Kleerdex made a push into the aircraft cabin interiors business in 2005, sensing opportunities marrying its highly customized approach to a small-volume market with stringent needs, Cort said. Its aerospace business is up 500 percent since 2005 - although from a very small base, because the firm did very little prior aircraft business, he said.
``It's a niche market but it's profitable,'' Cort said. ``The demands of the market are really daunting. As a sheet extruder, it's everything you don't want - small quantities, custom colors, short lead times.''
He said Kleerdex, which mainly sells to the aircraft seat makers, has been able to take advantage of two related trends in the first- class air travel market: more premium seating that either folds out into beds or becomes minicabins; and desires by airlines for increased branding. Both create demand for very specific colors and material textures.
Those luxury seats can command ticket prices of US$8,000 a flight, more than 10 times the economy price, so material requirements are exacting, he said. Because it can cost US$70,000 to manufacture just one premium-quality seat, the price of the plastic becomes a relatively small expense for the seat makers, though, he said.
Aerospace growth is part of the reason the company is considering establishing a small production facility in Asia, where it could have one extrusion line and its sister company, Allen Extruders Inc., could have another. The facility would do work for all of those companies' end markets, and not just aerospace, according to Henry Kawashima, Kleerdex's executive vice president.
Both firms are owned by Tokyo-based Sekisui Chemical Co. Ltd. Kawashima said they may put the equipment into some PVC pipe factories Sekisui recently acquired in China.
Composites supplier Hexcel Corp. of Stamford, Conn., said it was seeing growth in its Asian composites business, for structural parts for aircraft.
The composites manufacturer is studying whether it makes sense to add manufacturing capability for aerospace-quality composites in China, after deciding earlier this year to start making composite prepreg material for the wind turbine market at its Tianjin operation, said Ken Owen, regional sales manager for Asia Pacific.
The company has been adding aerospace prepreg capacity at several European factories.
Hexcel currently make composite aircraft parts at its joint venture site in Tianjin, but it does not make the actual composite material in China, he said. Its facility, BHA Aero Composite Parts Co. Ltd., is a joint venture with Boeing and Chinese aircraft maker Avic 1.
Hexcel makes the Boeing 737 D-nose there, for example, and it supplies composite materials to Chinese helicopter manufacturers, he said. Currently, Asian aircraft firms are generally not as sophisticated in their use of composites as firms like Boeing or Airbus, but they are very interested in ramping up, he said.
Others expect significant increases in the use of composites by domestic Chinese aircraft makers.
``I think they will increase their usage fairly rapidly,'' said Ryan Flugel, vice president of global sales and marketing for Argosy International Inc., which makes aerospace coatings and fabrics and distributes thermoplastics and composites to the Asian aircraft market.
``The ingenuity you see in the Chinese aerospace industry is pretty intense,'' Flugel said.
New York-based Argosy, which maintains its own engineering team to help aerospace firms with product development, is having a hard time keeping up with demands for materials in Asia, he said.
The growth in aircraft composites worldwide has been led by Airbus and Boeing, which have substantially boosted use of composite plastics as a way to reduce weight and engine emissions and cut maintenance costs.
Airbus said its A380 is the first commercial aircraft to use 25 percent composites, and it plans to ramp up composites to more than 50 percent in future aircraft. Boeing's soon-to-be-launched 787 will be made from about 50 percent plastic composites, compared with just 10 percent in the 777 model.
Smaller aircraft makers are following.
Canada's Bombardier Inc. plans to make its new C series single-aisle passenger jets with 47 percent composites. The company, which is the world's third-largest maker of civil aircraft, is nearing a decision on whether to launch that plane, which would start production in 2013.
Bombardier also has been boosting use of composites in its existing CRJ regional jets, including on control parts like outboard flaps, using resin transfer molding technology it developed at its Belfast, Northern Ireland, facility, said Trung Ngo, vice president of marketing and communications.
The aircraft maker recently invested US$16.2 million in its composites facility.
``This is going to be one of the major advantages we have as a company in terms of development of technology,'' he said.