ITTEVILLE, France, May 13 (Reuters) - Safran aims to quadruple its carbon composites activities within the next five years, the French company’s chief executive said, referring to new materials designed to reduce fuel consumption in the newest jet engines.
Composites manufacturing currently represents the equivalent of 2 percent of the aerospace and defence company’s revenue and this should rise to 8 percent by 2020 and 15 percent in the long term, CEO Jean-Paul Herteman said, at the opening of a 50 million-euro research plant on Tuesday.
Safran reported revenue of 14.7 billion euros in 2013.
New materials are a crucial part of efforts by the engine industry to burn less fuel in its latest generation of engines. Safran’s U.S. rival Pratt & Whitney has taken another approach by putting more of its focus on mechanical changes.
While the use of lightweight carbon fibre in the airframes of the latest jets such as the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350 has dramatically increased, such alternative materials have until now crept only gradually inside the jets’ engines.
“We want to develop the use of composites in engines and other high-tech equipment supplied by our group,” Herteman said.
“We have to start work on this well before the technology arrives that it will serve,” he added at the opening of the composites research plant at Itteville in the Essonne area.
The new research site is part of a cluster of chemical and defence plants in the French countryside south of Paris including Herakles, Safran’s solid rocket fuel division.
Safran will focus on “organic matric composites” that are suitable for “cold” parts of a jet engine, where temperatures reach some 150 degrees Celsius (300 degrees Fahrenheit), plant manager Marc Gouny said.
Safran’s main engine partner, General Electric, is developing “ceramic matrix composites” that work in some hotter parts of the engine and aim to save on fuel and emissions.
“The current limit on what we can do is temperature. We can go up to 150 degrees using organic matrix composites, but we want to push this higher,” said Gouny.
Safran plans to make “3D composite woven” fan blades and fan casings for the LEAP engine, which it is developing with GE for 2016.
The research to be carried out at the plant could lead to more lightweight composite parts, such as airfoils that channel relatively cold air, being added when LEAP gets its first regular product upgrade around 2020, Gouny said.
Scientists are also looking for quicker and cheaper ways of testing composites, one of the bugbears of composite production.
Because flaws can rarely be seen, engineers use ultrasound checks. But the parts have to be bathed in water first to help transmisssion, much as doctors apply gel before a stomach scan. (Reporting by Tim Hepher; reporting by Steve Orlofsky)