|Emteq’s HD video cable|
For wire and cable companies, the aviation industry, even in a time of economic austerity, is a key source of opportunities. Smaller, lighter and more capable cables and wire remain a priority for an industry looking to reduce operating costs and support advanced digital technologies. As they look to boost the capability of new aircraft, operators also need an assist from wire and cable suppliers to stretch out the useful life of their legacy platforms. To meet these challenges, companies are pressing ahead with research and development on products and strategies to address efforts to maintain and upgrade veteran aircraft.
While some market segments have stagnated, “the aerospace industry still represents a huge opportunity for cable suppliers,” said John Wadeley, senior global product manager for TE Connectivity. “Confidence throughout the industry remains high, and the pace of R&D … remains strong offering a healthy new product stream at all levels of the supply chain.”
|TE Connectivity offers wire and cable products for avionics, and in-flight entertainment and power distribution systems.|
There are some complications, however, beginning the high cost of raw materials, such as copper. “Increased material costs have not slowed down the development of new products or reduced the opportunity to (decrease) … size and weight, but it does mean that when these new products hit the market they will come with a higher price tag,” said Wadeley.
With regards to R&D, “there certainly is less funding at least from the government side, but I don’t know how much in comparison from previous years,” said Michael Traskos, president of Lectromec, a wiring test company in Dulles, Va.
The belt tightening is yielding some opportunities, however. “‘Sustainment’ has become a buzz word in the industry,” said Jeff Fyfe, aerospace business leader at W.L. Gore & Associates. “Because of continuing delays to new aircraft platforms caused by technical challenges and/or budget constraints, the industry is looking for ways to ‘sustain’ current platforms and extend their service life.”
“For the most part, they are rewiring these older civil and military aircraft with existing technologies; (for example) …wiring a 1960s aircraft with 1980s designed wire,” said Bob Scott, senior wire and cable product manager at A.E. Petsche, an Arlington, Texas-based distributor of wire and cable products. Generally, “this does not pose difficulties because you are talking about the proven reliability … of mature products.”
However, Service Life Extension Programs, such as that proposed by the Air Force for the F-16 earlier this year in response to F-35 delays, do provide challenges. Sometimes, these programs call for not just basic maintenance but also avionics improvements that could require “wire and cabling solutions that equal current or higher performance standards,” said Fyfe. “At the same time, the wire and cables must be installed within the existing aircraft structure, which means the performance enhancements must be accomplished within the same size or smaller wire and cables,” he said. “These tighter configurations leave less room for wire and cables; therefore, they also need to be engineered with additional mechanical strength to prevent damage during routing and installation.”
In maintaining and upgrading these older aircraft, there are also challenges related to assessing the safety of the electrical wiring interconnect systems (EWIS) of these platforms. “They are going to need to go through the thousands of maintenance data entries, perhaps tens of thousands … then they need to gather all of the wiring system data together,” Traskos said. “We have been working in this field for a while and have developed techniques to automate some of this, but if they are going through this for a first time, it will be a difficult,” he said. “Further, once they have all the data, the process of combining the current condition, life projection … and system risk information is complex.”
Lectromec is “working with the Air Force right now to help them develop their EWIS risk assessment for service life extension programs,” said Traskos.
“As for upgrading, that is a tough proposition for any aircraft in the fleet; I think the last major rewire project was on the F-15s and that (cost) over $500 million,” he said. “If anything, maintainers are looking to limit rewiring to subsections in the aircraft … part of this to be justified by results of EWIS risk assessments of the older aircraft.”
While progress often comes at slow pace, companies are pressing ahead with R&D efforts aimed at upping the durability and capability of the technologies while reducing size, weight and energy use to meet the power requirements “of (the) more complex, interconnected systems in the aircraft” and “lower operating costs … because less weight equals fuel savings,” said Fyfe. Civil aviation’s priorities are “reliability, temperature resistance and weight, (while) military aerospace is more focused on size and weight due to the increasing use of advanced electronic systems (pods) that require more reliable performance in harsh environments.”
To meet these needs, the companies are developing and deploying products using a variety of strategies as well as conductive and insulation materials and protocols. When it comes to airframe wiring, the large aircraft manufacturers “are still undertaking initiatives to do thinner wall insulations … downsizing gauge size as a weight saving initiative,” said Scott. For example, some are “going from 22 to 24 gauge but are running at a higher voltage to have the same power capability.”
In the larger sense, the airframe wire world is on the verge of “a revolution with large aircraft manufacturers dismissing conventional wrapped solutions due to the endless problems of visible damage caused during the installation into the airframe,” said Wadeley. “This has lead to a drive towards alternative insulation systems based on hybrid constructions and the further development of inorganic films,” he said. “This period of change will permanently modify the landscape of the aircraft wire market which has remained largely unchanged for the last 30 years.”
When it comes to data cables, “the aerospace industry is facing a step change in the use of high-speed copper cables” to support “the increased demand for passenger entertainment and information technology especially on the long haul routes,” said Wadeley. To boost capability, industry is adopting protocols imported from commercial electronics and automotive industry, such as the Ethernet, Digital Visual Interface, Universal Serial Bus (USB) and Controller Area Network (Can) bus. Cables used for “these protocols are normally unsuitable for use on aircraft, so the cable industry is being challenged to create new offerings using higher temperature and tougher materials,” Wadeley said.
On a practical note, “customers are still asking for higher temperature jackets so they can run cable along with their main wiring and not have to separate, which reduces engineering time and labor time for installation,” said Kerry Stuckart, product manager, coax cables, at Emteq, based in New Berlin, Wis.
The pursuit of higher speed, higher data rates gigabit speeds has significantly increased the use of more fiber on military and civil aircraft for instrumentation and weapons systems and on the commercial side for in-flight entertainment systems, said Scott.
As the “experience with fiber improves,” the trend has been for fiber solutions “to proliferate within the industry,” Wadeley said. “For commercial aircraft, there are more systems and platforms that are supporting up to 10 Gbps on 50 uM (micron) fiber OM3/OM4 fibers,” he said. However, the challenge has been to get a user friendly fiber that could just be “cut and used.”
There have been recent advances, such as on the Irvine, Calif.-based Lumexis’s fiber to the screen (FTTS), Wadeley said. The system, which TE Connectivity helped develop and uses that company’s fiber ARINC 810 connectors, is a “complete fiber solution that gives excellent bandwidth capacity to assist in implementation of wireless solutions on an ample bandwidth backbone,” said Wadeley. “There are other systems that are employing partial solution backbones, but none have been able to match their bandwidth performance to date.” The system has attracted three customers to date flydubai, Transaero and Pacific Royale Airways.
Along with ARINC 801 termini, TE Connectivity also offers and expanded beam technologies for fiber optics solutions along with its Quadrax connectors and cables that support 1-gigabit Ethernet requirements.
“Fiber is a great way to transfer more data and reduce cable size and weight, (but) I see fiber being more prevalent and accepting in shorter runs, seat-to-seat IFE [in-flight entertainment] type installations,” said Stuckart. “There is still the concern and hesitancy with working with fiber optic cable and field terminations; (however), fiber is a technology that Emteq definitely plans to support,” she said, adding the company is continuing to focus of developing innovative ways to expand it high definition aircraft grade cable and is currently “working on multiple product designs” to meet the “increased demand for longer lengths.”
Currently, “fiber optics and copper cables are both used in aircraft, with copper remaining the dominant media for signal transmission,” said Fyfe. “This may change over time, but a complete change from copper to fiber optics is not expected.” While higher bandwidth might be “driving the increased use of fiber optics, RF, power and system constraints still require improved copper cabling.”
“Copper and fiber always have and always will coexist,” Wadeley said. “As the higher speeds are implemented the challenge will be to make sure proper tools/interfaces are employed to assure the end applications employ proper matched impedance performance that work in concert with the application and performance demands.”
Meanwhile, “the introduction of copper clad aluminum conductors has offered huge weight savings to aircraft manufacturers, but these savings have come at a price,” Wadeley said. “The connector/cable industry is still wrestling with inexpensive reliable termination, and because of this, the uptake has been patchy with only one manufacturer taking wholesale advantage of this new technology.”
Looking to the future, there has been “steady progress” in work with carbon nanotubes (CNT), said Wadeley. “We are working with key selected customers investigating several approaches to the solution and have made working prototypes that are based on the following concepts: CNT, CNT shielded/traditional conductor, and CNT-metal hybrid constructions,” he said. “This development is still with the AD&M [Aerospace, Defense & Marine] advanced development group but will transition to a manufacturing group sponsorship when it is sufficiently mature.”
Last year, Concord, N.H.-based Nanocomp Technologies was awarded a contract from Northrop Grumman under the U.S. Army Manufacturing Technology Program (ManTech) to develop manufacturing best practices for carbon nanotube cabling and tapes, intended for insertion into aircraft as a replacement for conventional copper-based wires and cables.
“Using fiber optics is only one way to reduce weight; other material technologies, such as engineered fluoropolymers, can also offer weight reduction,” said Fyfe. In fact, “the industry would like to have the electrical performance of a normal-weight wire in a lightweight form,” said Tom Sharp, Gore’s new product development specialist. “The trend has been to develop lightweight versions of standard products by using advanced polymers, (but) the challenge is developing an insulation system that is mechanically robust over a wide range of temperatures up to 260°C,” said Sharp. “As aircraft begin operating at higher altitudes with extremely cold temperatures, the industry is (also) beginning to request improved low-temperature performance.”
“By manipulating engineered fluoropolymers, we are developing new materials that maintain integrity in extreme temperatures and other harsh conditions,” Sharp said.
Gore’s key initiatives are aimed at providing “solutions that maintain electrical and mechanical integrity in the challenging aerospace environments,” said Fyfe. “For example, our new cable-based antennas (often referred to as leaky lines or leaky feeders) improve signal propagation without increasing the amount of hardware required on … both wide-body and single-aisle passenger aircraft,” he said. The technology provide access “to different wireless protocols, so passengers can easily connect to in-flight entertainment, Internet servers, and email accounts,” said Fyfe.
The company also offers GORE SKYFLEX Aerospace Materials that provide “long-lasting protection against chafing and abrasion in both rotary and fixed-wing aircraft surfaces.”
Next month: Databus
Avionics Magazine’s Product Focus is a monthly feature that examines some of the latest trends in different market segments of the avionics industry. It does not represent a comprehensive survey of all companies and products in these markets. Avionics Product Focus Editor Ed McKenna can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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