Carbon fibre has been used in aircraft completions for some time but is relatively new as decorative material in the outfitting industry, notes AMAC’s Waleed Muhiddin. What’s its potential, and why has it taken this long to catch on?
Over the last few years a trend to incorporate visible carbon fibre textures into VIP aircraft has emerged that is comparable to the interior designs found in high-profile sports cars. In some instances, owners who like the look of the carbon fibre in sports cars have requested a similar look within their aircraft cabins. It’s a very nice material to have inside a cabin, visually, but it does take a great deal of love and care to achieve the desired finish.
Decorative carbon fibre should be sourced selectively – ideally from vendors that also supply the high-end automotive industry. Samples should be closely analysed by the completions center with regard to age of the fibres, the weaves that are implemented, and batch production to ensure that only the newest and best materials are used in completion projects.
Once the finest quality material has been selected, the application of decorative carbon fibre is comparable – although slightly different - to wood veneer application.
Barely thicker than a sheet of paper, the visible carbon fibre is carefully glued onto the structural panel (typically honeycomb composite). Around 20 layers of varnish are then applied, following which the varnish is sanded to eliminate flaws (rising bubbles, speckling, cracks and/or blemishes).
You should speak to your completions/refurbishment center about the application process as well as the varnish formula used, as this needs to be tailored to the characteristics of the carbon fibre sheets. It took eight months of testing at AMAC to develop the best process and obtain the desired levels of quality of varnish that revealed the unique characteristic of the material.
After the process has been honed by the completions center, carbon fibre can be used in a variety of places within the cabin, and we have installed it on seat surrounds, decorative flat panels, and curved full-height panels and trims. A recent ACJ319 completion utilized a high amount of decorative carbon fibre, and, to our knowledge that completions project used some of the highest quantities of decorative carbon fibre yet.
So does this mean that the potential for carbon fibre is without limits? Essentially, yes – provided that it fulfils the necessary certification requirements. But what is so special about carbon fibre, and why is its popularity growing as a decorative material?
Let’s consider some other, more traditional materials used for decorative purposes within the cabin. Metal work, a more solid material than carbon fibre, requires more time to work than the refining finish applied to carbon fibre. Leather, another traditional material, has a different nature to its worked application and can be a time-consuming material to work with, depending on the complexity of the designs for the leather finish.
As such, carbon fibre is unlikely to replace any of the more traditional materials used in completions, but this material broadens the options for the aircraft owner - complementing the wood veneers, laminates and paints that are currently widely used in cabin completions.
While lighter than wood veneer, the weight savings gained from carbon fibre are not significant – thus its use is all about its aesthetic value.
There is no overlooking the currently high cost of good quality carbon fibre along with the work required to perfect its finish. Unless significant gains are made in terms of the cost of the material, the likelihood of it replacing other materials is low.
Nevertheless, industry experience with carbon fibres may help drive the costs down gradually. Having developed our process, we are producing applications more effectively and therefore at a lower cost than previously. The overall costs are still higher compared to traditional wood veneer, but that is directly related to the acquisition cost of the carbon fibre sheets.
Ultimately, I do predict a growing demand for carbon fibre, and we are responding by developing a seat incorporating a carbon fibre shell. While the overall structure of the seat won’t change (the skeleton structure is made using aluminium), the decorative areas of the seat are always open to development, and it is this aspect of the design that we seek to exploit. The business class seats in the airline world tend to have plastic shells, but in the Business Aviation world, those details are usually more tailored.
From Brief to Cabin
When a client speaks with a designer or a design department, the brief is usually concise and very specific as to what a principle wishes to have within the cabin. We have seen completion projects for cabins using one type of wood and cabins that use a combination of materials. But increasingly today we see clients moving toward new materials that aren’t commonly used within aircraft cabins.
When a principle briefs the designer, the designer will try to approximate the levels of style and comfort desired, and that in turn is communicated to the completion center.
The complex part of this process comes with transferring the design package into something known as ‘X-Ref’, a working document that identifies where bulkheads are positioned, how curved panels bring two rooms together, and details such as lamps and lighting. Approximating the level of style and ambiance inside the cabin then filters down to the type of material requested, such as carbon fibre.
It is from the ‘X-Ref’ that engineers will be able to pinpoint where the carbon fibre should be applied, whether there are any curves required, and if stress lines need to be cut to accommodate seat controls and/or cabin controls.
Therefore carbon fibre, as with other, more traditional materials, is truly one that can be utilized anywhere.