• Follow us

Automotive

The Need for Carbon Fiber Could Ground the Flying-Car Future

In the A5, Icon Aircraft has produced an airplane that handles easily, resists dangerous spins, and treats its pilots and passengers to an open, airy cockpit. What the small company hasn’t produced, however, is very many of the bright-white two-seaters: About 65 since 2014, with each selling now for nearly $400,000.

Icon’s struggle to ramp up production of an airplane it initially promised for $139,000 can be blamed mostly on its heavy use of carbon fiber—a material that cuts weight and adds strength, but also adds complexity and cost to the manufacturing process. And while the Vacaville, California-based company has done much to course-correct, its struggle to produce a new kind of aircraft should serve as a warning to the flying flotilla of outfits racing to fill the skies with air taxis.

These electric-powered vertical-lift machines, most using multiple rotors and lift-generating wings along with novel body types, promise rooftop-to-front-lawn commuting and quick crosstown hops within a decade. But if the industry veterans leading Icon, making a fairly conventional winged aircraft, can’t find their footing after a similar stretch of time, what chances do the roughly 130 companies developing a radical new aircraft type for a radical new service actually have?

Carbon fiber is wondrous for its light weight and strength, but it’s a pain to make. The time-intensive process includes laying up resin-soaked carbon-fiber sheets in molds, trimming the pieces after they’ve cured for hours in an oven, and bonding components together.

Icon Aircraft

On a track studded with hurdles like certification, funding, and logistics, the matter of production is easy to ignore. But it’s a vital one, given that most of these companies plan to operate their aircraft as fleets of flying cabs. If there aren’t thousands of these eVTOLs ready to start ferrying passengers about relatively soon after the service launches, the effort could enter a death spiral before you can shout “taxi!” into the sky. A 2018 study by Porsche Consulting projected a market demand for 23,000 eVTOL aircraft by 2035, in a $32 billion passenger market.

Today, no company on Earth makes more than 700 aircraft a year, a factor of complexity and the relatively modest market size. Given that the air-taxi crowd is counting on automobile-like fleet sizes and banking on carbon-fiber construction, they’re starting from zero.

“Mass-produced composite aircraft essentially don’t exist,” says Brian German, an aerospace engineer who studies emerging aviation markets at Georgia Tech. “There’s never been a market big enough to even try it, and the level of investment needed to achieve these rates would be immense.”

Composite Challenges

Carbon fiber is wondrous for its light weight and strength, but it’s a pain to make. The time-intensive process includes laying up resin-soaked carbon-fiber sheets in molds, trimming the pieces after they’ve cured for hours in an oven, and bonding components together.

From the outset, Icon made things even harder on itself. The A5 has 370 individual carbon-fiber parts, totaling 10,000 square feet of the material. They all have to be laid out by hand and then bonded, by hand, into 70 subassemblies. Every change to improve manufacturability requires redesigning other parts, potentially compromising weight, cost, or performance. “There was so much that was not designed for carbon-fiber manufacturability,” says president Thomas Wieners, who joined Icon in 2015. “It was designed purely on flight characteristics and aesthetics. But it proved extremely complicated to build.”

Bentonville, Arkansas-based Game Composites, founded by Walmart heir Steuart Walton, is developing a composite-built aerobatic aircraft primarily as a means of streamlining carbon-fiber production.

Eric Adams

Some eVTOL players appear clued in to the potential misery of production hell. One is Bell, which unveiled its air taxi concept, Nexus, at CES earlier this month. The company has spent eight decades building helicopters and small aircraft, and it knows all about the pain of manufacturing, including with carbon composites. For this new project, Bell’s rapid prototyping and manufacturing leadership works alongside the design team. “There’s never a design review that doesn’t have manufacturing folks present,” says Scott Drennan, vice president of innovation. “They’ll look at a piece and say, 'That’s too expensive to manufacture, so change it to this other process or this other design,’ for example. We’ve learned over 80 years that you can’t underestimate the cost of setting up the manufacturing base.”

The approach of the younger efforts is less clear. Most companies that have announced air taxi programs haven’t publicly discussed manufacturing strategies yet, while others seem to be connecting the dots right out the gate. The latter include Beta Technologies, which this month revealed its prototype, possibly the fastest and largest eVTOL aircraft yet flown.

Aiming to produce a commercial aircraft by 2024, Beta has been working with North Carolina carbon-fiber manufacturer Blue Force Technologies from the get-go. “You’re going to find around the industry some well-funded eVTOL companies that will try to do everything from beginning to end—engineering, analysis, production, and then just hand off specific component plans to a manufacturer,” says Beta CEO Kyle Clark. “That’s destined for failure because manufacturability doesn’t get designed into the aircraft.”

The partnership, Clark says, should ensure that Beta’s final product will be practical and economically feasible, and that it will take full advantage of carbon fiber’s upsides. “If we throw a design over the wall and don’t understand the ‘art of the possible,’ then we miss the opportunity to make the entire design as simple and elegant as we can, wasting no space or weight,” Clark says.

Blue Force CEO Scott Bledsoe says that this is where smaller startups can have an advantage over legacy aircraft manufacturers getting into the eVTOL game. “Big companies talk about integrating product and design teams but often never get there,” says Bledsoe, who worked at Icon early in its history and saw the challenges arise firsthand. “Having teams steering the design with each an equal seat at the table—aerodynamics, propulsion, styling, structures, manufacturing—there’s no turf battle.”

Bledsoe says he’s also able to reign in extravagances in Beta’s design, noting that one of Icon’s early problems centered on its insistence on having a sports-car-like interior, which he says proved expensive and time-consuming to manufacture out of carbon fiber. Furthermore, Blue Force is constantly developing or trialing new composite manufacturing techniques. Among these are thermoplastic composites, a sort of carbon fiber that uses resins that soften when heated. That allows for the shaping of parts when heated, after which they stiffen as they cool. (Conventional carbon-fiber manufacturing requires pieces to be shaped and then baked in an oven to set, a longer and more labor-intensive process.)

Fixes

If Icon is a cautionary tale, another new airplane manufacturer could prove to be an inspiration for the eVTOL. Bentonville, Arkansas-based Game Composites, founded by Walmart heir Steuart Walton, is developing a composite-built aerobatic aircraft primarily as a means of streamlining carbon-fiber production. Company president Philipp Steinbach’s strategy has been to move carefully, taking on one challenge at a time and focusing on quality and consistency of the components it manufactures. So far it has spent only about $3 million, including raw materials, equipment, and salaries, to complete its prototype and fabrication processes.

One factor it has focused on is repairability, citing the challenges of fixing punctures in the field without having to replace entire components, as is often required. “We’ve proven you can repair ours without removing the part and be ready to fly again the next day,” he says. Gamebird uses what’s called wet-layup carbon fiber in its fabrication, which requires workers to add resin to the sheets manually during the layup process. It’s even more time-intensive than the more popular “prepreg” material—which comes with resin infused in the carbon-fiber sheets—but Steinbach says it can be repaired more easily. Such is the material minutiae eVTOL companies will have to manage, and they’re far more than skin-deep.

At Icon, Wieners has focused on bringing automotive-grade production strategies to the aircraft factory, introducing things like lasers that guide workers in their trimming to accelerate that process, and training employees for multiple operations. His advice for air taxi startups sounds weary, but on point. “We certainly wouldn’t do it again the way we did the first time,” he says. “I’d tell people to take smaller chunks of the pie, and create awareness of the money needed, because manufacturing is expensive. Investors don’t like to see this on Powerpoints because it all needs to be sexy and wow—but you really do need buildings, tooling, high technology, and well-trained people.”

Icon might indeed have course-corrected well enough to survive a painful first decade. Wieners says potential customers are still excited about the A5, and that his workforce is motivated by the recent changes. And it could prove more than just an inspirational tale for those scores of would-be highfliers: It’s planning to manufacture carbon-fiber components for that industry too.

More Great WIRED StoriesWe need a radical new way to understand screen useThese chickens lay designer eggs for Big PharmaFyre Festival docs dissect attendees'—and your—FOMOWeedmaps’ grip on the high-flying California pot marketThe invisible reality of motherhood on Instagram👀 Looking for the latest gadgets? Check out our picks, gift guides, and best deals all year round📩 Want more? Sign up for our daily newsletter and never miss our latest and greatest storiesRead More



Leave A Comment

More News

WIRED

Jargon Watch: What ‘Roadmanship’ Means to a Self-Driving 2019-02-18 06:00:00More than a century later, the quaint term is back as a basis for long-­overdue safety standards in autonomous vehicles. 

How a DIY Tesla Mechanic Resurrects Damaged Electric 2019-02-18 06:00:00Rich Benoit stumps for the right-to-repair movement, pushing uncooperative manufacturers to make it easier for owners to fix stuff themselves.

Digging Into Self-Driving Data and More Car News 2019-02-17 09:00:00Plus: We bid adieu to the Airbus A380, Amazon makes a move, and we take a tour of the gear that keeps Nascar racers on the oval.

Uber Sues NYC to Kill Its Ride-Hail Car 2019-02-15 19:42:26New York's mayor says the rule, which halts the granting of new licenses, is vital for reining in congestion. Uber says the city is overreaching.

See All the Tools and Tricks That Make 2019-02-15 09:00:00If perfectly arranged drawers and heart-stopping car racing is your thing, you'll be glad to meet the crews who make it happen.

Au Revoir, Airbus A380 2019-02-14 20:53:54It was so huge that it required a whole special bespoke transportation logistics setup, but no one wanted to buy it.

A New Robo-Car Report Card Isn't Quite What 2019-02-13 22:09:35The numbers are a little jumbly, but reports published by the state’s DMV show progress toward the day when humans are unshackled from the steer

Americans Are Abandoning Public Transit—but Don't Blame Uber 2019-02-13 09:00:00In a world of cheap gas, easy-come auto loans, ride-hail, and now a new breed of bike- and scooter-share, transit riders aren’t riding like they

Forget People, Elroy's Self-Flying Drone Hauls Heavy Cargo 2019-02-13 08:00:00The hybrid-powered aircraft will carry up to 500 pounds with a range of 300 miles and could enter service next year.

Softbank Invests $1B in Robo-Delivery Startup Nuro 2019-02-11 20:49:48So get ready to see a lot more of the company's toaster-inspired, human-free robots roaming the street, delivering groceries.

Amazon's Self-Driving Bet and More Car News This 2019-02-10 09:00:00The logistics giant invests in autonomous vehicle startup Aurora, the micromobility world ponders its future, we review the new Porsche 911, and more.

The Green New Deal's Trains and EVs Won't 2019-02-08 20:24:01Access to cars is the best short-term solution for connecting lower-income people to jobs, but the autos they can afford are the worst for the planet.

Automotive news - from

PSA Poissy plant to produce an additional Opel 2019-02-20 09:21:00Groupe PSA has said that it will allocate the production of a new Opel/Vauxhall B-SUV to its Poissy plant in France.

Mercedes to highlight big-data platform at MWC 2019-02-20 07:57:00Mercedes-Benz is to highlight its new big-data platform at the Mobile World Congress (MWC) from 25 to 28 February 2019 in Barcelona.

Chinese cities introduce Euro 6 standards in 2019 2019-02-20 06:45:00The Beijing municipal government this week announced plans to introduce stricter emission standards on heavy-duty vehicles in July, joining a growing

Philippine vehicle sales fall 15% in January 2019-02-20 06:43:00The Philippine new vehicle market continued to decline in January 2019, by 15% to 26,888 units from 31,645 units in the same month of last year, accor

Vietnam vehicle sales jump 24% in January 2019-02-20 06:43:00Vietnam's new vehicle market continued to rebound strongly in January, with sales jumping by 24% to 31,789 units from weak year-earlier sales of 25,6

Volvo Trucks delivers its first all-electric trucks 2019-02-20 06:39:00Volvo Trucks has delivered its first all-electric vehicles - a refuse truck to waste and recycling company Renova, and a distribution truck to the log

Punch makes new Ford Aquitaine offer - French 2019-02-20 06:27:00France's Finance Minister says Punch Powerglide has made a new offer for Ford's troubled site at Blanquefort near Bordeaux.

PPG investing in new paint line at Greenville 2019-02-20 06:25:00PPG has announced a US$10m investment in a new 82,000-sq ft facility and class A paint line at its Greenville, South Carolina, coatings services facil

GM investing to increase production capacity at Michigan 2019-02-20 06:21:00General Motors is investing US$20m at its Romulus, Michigan propulsion plant to increase the plant's capacity for future 10-speed transmission produc

Honda UK closure "devastating" - Business Secretary 2019-02-20 05:58:00UK Business Secretary, Greg Clark says Honda's decision to shutter its British plant in Swindon is "devastating" with the potential loss of al

Ford exits heavy truck business in South America 2019-02-20 05:53:00Ford has confirmed its exit from the heavy commercial truck business in South America as a "key step toward returning its South America operations to

CLEPA warns new EC emissions tough to meet 2019-02-20 04:38:00European suppliers association, CLEPA says extremely tough new emissions standards for heavy-duty vehicles unveiled by the European Commission (EC), w

Motor Trend

Hero, Zero: The Rise and Fall of Carlos 2019-02-20 04:00:32January 2003. I’m talking with a senior auto industry analyst about Carlos Ghosn. “If it was announced Ghosn was about to take the top job

2018 Honda Civic Type R Long-Term Update 4: 2019-02-20 04:00:16In the last update, I relayed what editor-in-chief Ed Loh’s wife, Giulia—er, Julia—a self-declared CTR “newbie,” thought

The Mercedes-Benz SLC Roadster is Officially Done 2019-02-19 19:14:51The excruciatingly drawn-out decline of the traditional sedan may be getting all the headlines, but that’s not the only segment ailing in this c

2019 Ram Heavy Duty Priced Starting at $35,090 2019-02-19 17:20:52When Ram announced its new Heavy Duty pickup trucks, the biggest news was the fact that you could add an all-new 6.7-liter Cummins turbodiesel go

Subaru Viziv Adrenaline Concept Coming to Geneva 2019-02-19 17:00:09Today, Subaru released a teaser image of a concept it will debut at the Geneva Motor Show on March 5. This model is the latest in a series of radical

2019 Volkswagen Jetta GLI: Eight Questions With the 2019-02-19 16:00:30Volkswagen chose the Chicago Auto Show to reveal the 2019 Volkswagen Jetta GLI. With the GTI’s 228-hp engine, an independent rear suspension, an

The 276-HP Ford Focus ST Is Hot Hatch 2019-02-19 15:30:33The Blue Oval will unleash an all-new Ford Focus ST this summer in Europe, and we get nothing. Why, Ford, why? Sure, we love our Mustangs and F-150s,

No Speed Limits? California Considering “Unlimited” Lanes on 2019-02-19 15:02:09California state senator John Moorlach (R-Orange County) has introduced a bill to that state’s legislature that would add lanes to both nor

Land Rover Scraps Plans for 518-HP Discovery SVX 2019-02-19 13:30:09When Land Rover first announced the Discovery SVX back in 2017, we couldn’t help but get excited. It featured JLR’s 5.0-liter supercharged

Honda May Add Civic Hatchback Production in North 2019-02-19 13:03:55Honda announced it will close its Swindon, U.K., manufacturing plant in 2021 when production ends on the current-generation Civic. All Civic hatchback

2018 Ford F-150 Lariat FX4 Long-Term Update 4: 2019-02-19 04:00:37I recently went in for my annual physical, with surprisingly good results considering all the Doritos and chocolate I consumed in 2018. It also happen

2019 Kia Niro EV First Drive: Friendly Electro-Wagonoid 2019-02-19 04:00:29Switching to an electric vehicle for the first time can be intimidating, and not just because of range anxiety. From the techy gauges to changing the


Disclaimer and Notice:WorldProNews.com is not responsible of these news or any information published on this website.