As airlines try to make their aircraft enticing for passengers returning to the skies, the materials used are becoming more important than ever, as Melissa Moody finds out

    Essential components in aircraft cabins, laminates and thermoplastics can be used to create everything from seat arms to bulkhead partitions. Thermoplastics manufacturer Sekisui Kydex has noticed an elevated focus on restoring passenger confidence, which has consequently become the focal point, leading to new innovation opportunities.

    “The Sekisui Kydex appLab and designLab innovation centres are collaborative spaces for clients and customers to bring the supply chain together for rapid prototyping and design development. These spaces are the bridge between engineering and design,” says Sekisui Kydex’s aviation market business manager, Ben Smalley.

    In recent months, innovation has become essential to cabins of the future. The company’s app and design labs give have created the right environment for a quick turnaround of ideas that could revolutionise the industry.

    Before Covid-19 hit, Smalley says that textures were emerging as a tactile trend in aircraft interiors; however, since then and because dirt, viruses, bacteria and fungi can get trapped in textured surfaces, the company has been looking at entirely new design concepts.

    “With the industry’s efforts to restore passenger confidence following Covid-19, we have received questions like: ‘Do we see an emergence of smoother surfaces moving forward which are easier to wipe down?’

    “Our answer: the design aesthetic of texture is trending in aviation, but you don’t have to sacrifice the appearance of texture for smooth surface cleanability,” explains Smalley.

    Inform and learn

    One of the ideas that has been developed is the Kydex thermoplastics range with infused imaging technology. It provides the appearance of texture on a smooth surface that Smalley claims can easily be cleaned and disinfected, plus it is available with additional antimicrobial protection.

    “Kydex thermoplastics are ideal for high-touch surface areas such as tray tables, seatbacks, armrests, IFE bezels, privacy panels, monuments and lavatory surfaces. Unlike competitor products that have design on the product as a film, infused imaging is inlaid within the sheet and allows for infinite custom designs with the perfect texture appearance for your application,” Smalley notes.

    The labs, which have transitioned into virtual collaboration with its partners, have also been keeping its customers informed on the kind of new technologies on offer.

    “We continue to rapidly prototype, create custom colour, explore the infused imaging technology design and produce 3D design using the total appearance capture and keyshot software,” outlines Smalley.

    Part of its work developed in the wake of the virus is Kydex’s ion technology. Said to be 99 per cent effective at inhibiting the growth of stain and odour-causing bacteria on the surface, the technology interferes with bacteria’s DNA and prevents them multiplying on the treated thermoplastic sheet.

    A sustainable roadmap

    Despite the virus becoming the topic of choice, FACC has been using the opportunity to re-energise its manufacturing processes for the products of the future. “The impact of the global downturn for the aerospace industry is significant,” asserts FACC director of research and technology Rene Adam.

    “The whole supply chain, from original equipment manufacturer to tier-three supplier is affected, but our internal efforts at FACC to bring new technologies to the market is not affected. We’ve invested €1.2 million ($1.3 million) in new research equipment for material and process. The crisis gives us the opportunity to rethink products and technologies.”

    Focusing heavily on sustainability, the company is looking at ways of using renewable materials such as sugar cane and how to re-use materials from aircraft at the end of their lives. Currently, thermoset-based matrix systems and a mix of composite and metals joined together by fasteners can be harder to recycle, as Adam points out.

    Materials

    “At FACC, we go down the path of thinking of recycling very early on during the product concept phase. For example, for thermoplastic materials and their assembly, welding instead of using a joining fastener offers a high potential for recycling, not only at the end of an aircraft’s life, but also during production.”

    He explains that the pressure to become greener and focus on climate change does not stop with the aviation industry and its processes.

    “The drive to bring materials based on renewable resources into the market comes from our responsibility at FACC to look at a cleaner world. But the materials are only one part. Our job is to rethink the whole value chain, from material delivery, storage, production and final shipping, to our customers. What counts to us is the global footprint.”

    Forward thinking

    When talking about future trends within the industry, Adam says that cabin design and robust manufacturing processes in the materials used to create interiors are essential for future concepts.

    “The inner cabin is the place where people come together and spend a lot of their time travelling from A to B. A clean environment and a feeling of safety and comfort are highly relevant criteria for customer satisfaction.”

    He believes that digitalisation will play a big part in future cabin design. “It gives the passenger the opportunity of the enhanced experience during the flight and more satisfaction.

    “The aerospace industry was always a front-runner in terms of new technology, and now we have a great opportunity to develop cleaner and more sustainable technologies to enable an eco-friendly way of travelling around the globe.”

    Promoting passenger protection

    One way that airlines are trying to reduce the risk of Covid-19 is through the use of antimicrobial surfaces. Lonseal is doing its bit with designing aircraft flooring that helps to resist germs.

    The floor has the highest exposure to microbes of any part of any facility and, while it is expected that healthcare facilities choose a flooring material that is germ-resistant, the manufacturer believes that the same should hold true for aircraft interiors.

    “When walking into an airplane, you shouldn’t have to wonder if you are in a clean environment. It is up to the airline to make sure that everything is as clean as possible; by having an antimicrobial flooring system in place, an aircraft will be that much closer to that goal,” observes Lonseal marketing manager Lace Greene-Cordts.

    “Antimicrobial protection is an investment that gives the airplane owner the peace of mind to continue operations, safe in the knowledge that people in their aircraft have an added layer of protection.”

    As a solution, the company is offering its GreenMedic flooring, a high-grade antimicrobial component which is already used in the construction of most of Lonseal’s aircraft sheet-vinyl floor offerings. It impedes the growth of microorganisms, which then provides long-term protection from a spectrum of unwanted bacteria and viruses.

    As the antimicrobial properties are added within the formulation of the product, and not as a top layer, Lonseal claims that this will provide  airline floors with a great deal more protection than normal.

    Lonseal also maintains that the seamless surface works well as a first line of defence against the invaders simply because it does not offer a good place to hide and breed. Adding the antimicrobial formulation doubles that protection and makes it near impossible for
    most microbes to survive on or in the floor for long.