Metal Consumption in the Aerospace Market

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Aircraft production rates are forecast to drop across the board this year and next, hitting a trough some time around 2012 due to slowing production rates according to an article in Aviation Today. Even though producers and distributors are still reporting strong market demand as we go to press. But to dispel a well circulated myth, the drop in demand will not be because metals will be widely displaced by composites. In fact, overall metal demand for aerospace is set to increase during the next decade once the current trough is past.

The fall in aircraft production volumes has been widely predicted with mention frequently made of both canceled and delayed orders at the principal aircraft makers, Boeing and Airbus. But another popular misconception outside the industry at least is that military is a large percentage of total aircraft numbers. The reality is that although military aircraft production is anticipated to be more stable, out of 4446 aircraft produced in 2008 only 446 were fixed wing military, just 10%, according to a presentation by AeroStrategyto an AMM conference last month. Military spend is set to be more stable and build programs are unlikely to be significantly affected by the general aviation downturn in spite of tight government budgets.

The business aviation market is set to be hit the most in the coming trough with a 40% drop in production from the 2008 peak. Cessna lead the sector with Hawker Beechcraft, Bombardier, Embraer and Gulfstream following behind. Some are in dual markets though. Bombardier and Embraer are also leading participants in the short haul commuter markets so metals consumption per aircraft will vary depending on the type of product being produced. Indeed the volume of metals consumed is vast compared to the volume that finally makes it into an aircraft because so much gets machined away or otherwise lost in the production process. From some 950 million pounds of raw materials consumed by the aerospace industry in 2008 only 170 million pounds actual made it into a finished aircraft.

To address another misconception that modern aircraft are all aluminum and titanium, steel is still very much in evidence making up 23% of total raw material consumption. Because of it’s ability to absorb shocks or even damage and yet retain strength there are certain applications like landing gear that steel is favored in despite of its density and hence greater weight. Chrome-nickel-iron alloys, often combined with molybdenum, vanadium and other rarer metals are still the favored alloys for engine components. In fact such is the growth in demand in Asia for steel aerospace alloys, that Corus has recently opened an aerospace steel distribution depot in China to meet growing local demand.

In subsequent articles this week, we will be following up with more in depth reviews of the titanium and aluminum aerospace markets. Interestingly while both metals exhibit similar properties of light weight and great strength, the growth markets are forecast to be significantly different, largely due to the growing incorporation of composites in new aircraft design.

–Stuart Burns

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