Companies with 10 to 50 employees are essential to the way modern aircraft are built
Radius Engineering CEO and cofounder Dimitrije Milovich, who won the Jud Hall Composites Manufacturing Award at the Aerodef conference this year, speaks with Senior Editor Bill Koenig.
Dimitrije, a lot of people know about alternate materials and 3-D printing. But what is composites’ place in aerospace and defense?
Composites are lightweight materials, and they’re used where things either leave the ground or people have to interact with them. For the latter, sporting goods are the best example. They’re made light and stiff and responsive. So that is a great application compared with older materials, such as wood and metal. For aerospace and defense, it goes even further because we’re talking about things that leave the ground: airplanes, rotor craft, helicopters, missiles. And there, composites have a huge advantage over traditional materials because they’re lighter, they can form very complex shapes, and they offer a lot of performance. But one thing that’s overlooked is that, unlike metals, composites don’t corrode. So for things like commercial aircraft, they have a great advantage in terms of service life and reduced maintenance costs, as well as the advantage of lower fuel consumption and the things you would traditionally associate with lightweight materials.
People have been talking for a long time about the need for new shapes of parts in aerospace. But the industry didn’t seem to change that much before the last 10 years. What is prompting that? Have there been breakthroughs in composites and other aspects of aerospace?
The aerospace industry is slow to change—and with good reason. You walk onto an aircraft, you don’t want to think, “Oh, they have last week’s new material on board. It’s going to fly faster and it’s lighter and greater but gee, it’s brand new and never been tested.” And that’s not the case. Aerospace is naturally very conservative, very slow to adopt new materials and new shapes. There is so much testing and evaluation that goes on with any new material, any new aircraft design, any new engine design. The manufacturers want to be sure everything works as it should and it’s going to work that way for a long time, so people are safe. So in composites, when new materials come along, it can typically take 10–20 years for those materials to become mainstream. And that’s as it should be. However, within the boundaries of known materials, things that we’ve worked with for several years, there are still opportunities to change how they’re put down; how they’re made into a shape; how they’re cured, which means how the heat and pressure is applied that turns it into a composite. Again, within the boundaries of what’s understood in terms of making things high quality, there’s a lot of room to work. And those are some of the things you’ve seen in the last 10 years. Boeing has innovations with the 787 Dreamliner, a great example of that. Airbus has done many of the same things: They’ve taken traditional materials and bumped up the bar by making larger, more complex structures and making them at lower cost.
Do you make parts or develop materials? What is Radius’ business?
We’re an engineering and technology company. Our focus is making it easier for our customers, such as Boeing and Airbus, to do what they do. We provide engineering services. We build specialty tooling and molds. And then we build specialty equipment that’s designed specifically for what’s called out-of-autoclave processing. Traditionally, aerospace composites have been made in large, pressurized ovens, called autoclaves, which are kind of like big pressure cookers put on their sides. These are big enough to put 100′ wings into. But because they’re so large and really designed to mold almost anything, they’re not great at molding everything. Now, instead of a kind of one-size-fits-all manufacturing process, you see development of specialty processes, such as the ones that we’ve been involved with over the last three decades: resin transfer molding and same qualified resin transfer molding. And everyone has an acronym and we’re no exception, so that’s RTM and SQRTM. In short, what we do is focus on ways to make composites out of the autoclave—and that saves money and time.
In addition to aerospace, other industries are studying composites. Automotive is a possibility because automotive now is under great pressure to lighten vehicles. Do you anticipate your company getting into non-aerospace applications?
We’re a niche company. We’ve done some automotive and sporting goods work in the past. For example, we developed the technology that Trek bicycle used on its high-end performance bikes called OCLV. But our focus for the last 20 years in particular has been aerospace. And there is plenty of work in the aerospace industry, which has very specific material and process needs.
To a layperson, aerospace may appear to be dominated by big companies like Boeing, Airbus and Lockheed. But I’ve interviewed executives like you at small companies. How important are job shops and other small companies in aerospace?
You hear a lot of talk about high technology. And it’s typically applied to software. But, in fact, any aircraft is high technology, it has been at any time in history: It’s been the highest technology. And because aircraft and rotor craft are so advanced, do so many things so safely and in so many ways, there are a lot of subsystems, a lot of specialty components and parts that go into those aircraft. And yes, you have to look down a few tiers, as we call it, from the Boeing or the Airbus, but then you find smaller and smaller companies, most of which are focused on one particular area and are really good at it. And they typically have a history like ours: They had an interesting idea, decided to move forward with it, and now own that technology. They really are the leaders. They may just be a 10-person or 50-person company, but they’re essential to the way modern aircraft are built. For every large aircraft manufacturer, there are hundreds of small companies whose contributions are really critical.