Composites have taken to the air on commercial airplanes for years, but now a Minnesota airplane equipment maker is taking thermoplastic composites into a whole new adventure niche.
Wipaire Inc. is using a long-glass-reinforced thermoplastic composite for the hatch covers on its aluminum floats, beginning with Wipaire 7000 floats for the 10-passenger Kodiak by Quest Aircraft Co. The hatches are
molded by PlastiComp LLC of Winona, Minn.
The hollow floats are pontoons that allow small planes like the Kodiak to land on water, which make them an essential part of wilderness flights all around the world.
The floats represent just a small part of PlastiComp's business at this time, but they are helping to prove the company's direct long-fiber process for compression molding, while also opening the door for growth, said President and CEO Steve Bowen.
We love little companies because most of them get big, Bowen said in a Feb. 11 telephone interview. We're in discussions with big programs too, but instead of just waiting, this gives us a chance to get some practical experience with a new customer.
PlastiComp is molding the hatch covers using its Pushtrusion direct glass-mat thermoplastic process in compression molding. The process is an ideal fit for Wipaire's need for low-weight, high-performance structural parts that come in at lower costs than metal alternatives, even at very low volumes. Wipaire, based in St. Paul, Minn., is the largest maker of airplane floats globally, but floats are a highly specialized product. The company makes floats for nine different models including the Kodiak, said Dan Garrett, research and development engineer for Wipaire. Kodiak float production is likely to top out at 10 sets of floats annually. With three hatch covers on each float, that means a market for 60 covers each year of that particular model. At that production level, it was hard to find companies and processes that would fit with the firm's needs, he said.
The hatch covers also must meet strict performance requirements. Each cover allows access to inspect the floats, but must withstand harsh environments and last for a long time. Wipaire frequently does maintenance on floats that have been in use for 20-30 years, Garrett said. The covers also sit on the top of the float, and must withstand the weight of pilots and passengers who walk across the floats to get in and out of the plane.
But Bowen, who is also a glider pilot, said PlastiComp liked the idea of working on the small program. It gave PlasticComp the opportunity to do real-world development on a new program. It also fits into the company's growing business in part production, which has been added to its development in long-glass-fiber composites.
We don't have minimum volumes, he said.
For the float-hatch project, the two firms spent a relatively quick 120 days creating the cover.
We developed the program together, said Larry Tiedemann, design manager for PlastiComp. We worked hand-in-hand on the tool design; we worked jointly on mold-flow analysis before the tool was even made.
Wipaire used its own aluminum production to build the mold, and also had the experience needed to get Federal Aviation Administration approval for the part. PlastiComp, meanwhile, knew how to design its material to create structural ribs to make the part, said Raj Mathur, business development manager for PlastiComp.
From the 7000 floats, Wipaire plans to extend the PlastiComp hatch covers to other floats it makes and will look at other places to use plastics. Bowen said the company is anxious to move into other programs. In addition to floats, Wipaire makes ski skids for winter flights, wing extensions typically used in back-country aircraft to allow them to maneuver on shorter landing strips, and other modifications.
You never know what you'll see, Garrett said. One week we'll see [our parts] in a movie, and the next week you'll see them delivering relief supplies to a third-world disaster area.
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