Canadian Plastics

Aerospace: The final frontier

It's a minor point of pride among some who grew up during the 1960s that they experienced firsthand the so-called Golden Age of Television -- a halcyon time in the history of TV broadcasting, compared...

March 1, 2009   Canadian Plastics



It’s a minor point of pride among some who grew up during the 1960s that they experienced firsthand the so-called Golden Age of Television — a halcyon time in the history of TV broadcasting, compared to which none of the shows either before or since can hold a candle.

Whether TV did or didn’t have such an epoch I’ll leave to pop culture historians. Whatever your opinion on that burning question, most of us who experienced it either at the time or in reruns would agree that one of the most memorable programs of that period was Star Trek. Featuring the intrepid Captain James T. Kirk, played by Canada’s own William Shatner, the show seems good nowadays primarily for a laugh. Yet who would have thought that the 60s-era Shatner — armed primarily with a phony-looking phaser gun, and penchant for overacting — would identify a growing business opportunity for today’s plastics processors?

What the heck am I talking about? Recall if you will the famous first line of Shatner’s narration over the show’s opening credits: “Space, the final frontier…”

For more and more processors looking to get ahead, as well as the moldmakers and others that service them, the future might indeed lie in setting their sights on space — or more precisely, on the aerospace industry.

It’s not as though this is uncharted territory, of course; plastics have long played an important role in aerospace applications. As long ago as World War II, plastics were a major substitute for rubber and metal in airplanes because these other materials were scarce. Later, the development of plastics that could take the heat associated with many aerospace applications, together with the launching of the U. S. space program, spurred additional interest and research in plastics for flight. Soon, plastic materials were common in aerospace for everything from interior trim in airplanes to nose cones for missiles. Solid fuel boosters on rockets and shields for reentry — to name but two applications — came to rely more and more on plastic materials. As a recent report by the Society of the Plastics Industry summed it up, “when man landed on the Moon, so did plastics.”

But there are signs that, in both military and commercial markets, plastics are about to go boldly where they haven’t gone before (to paraphrase our old friend Bill Shatner). For those of us familiar with the benefits of plastics, the main reason is obvious: weight savings without sacrifice of either strength or durability. For example, a prototype X-wing rotor craft that relies on sophisticated plastic-composite wings to act as rotor during takeoff and landing, developed for use by the U. S. military, is believed to have potential as a jet-powered commercial shuttle — the value of plastics being its ability to lighten heavy payloads while retaining stiffness under stresses caused by vibrations.

Plastics are popular for other reasons, as well. The near-invisibility of some plastics to radar make them indispensable to the military for “stealth” aircraft. Meanwhile, other plastic fibres could play a significant role in a proposed blimp that would warn naval forces of surface-skimming missiles.

And this is just to scratch the surface.

The point is that the aircraft and spacecraft of the 21st century increasingly will be made of plastics — and this opens up hitherto unobtainable markets, and unimaginable opportunities, for processors and others.

There’s no doubt that our industry is up to this challenge — not least because much of the standards and the machinery used for the production of (for example) auto parts are suitable for making many aerospace components.

The current issue of Canadian Plastics spotlights opportunities for moldmakers in aerospace markets. In future, we’ll explore in detail some of the opportunities for injection molders, extruders, and others.

The aerospace market as a growth opportunity? As Bill Shatner’s pal Mr. Spock might have said, it’s only logical.

Mark Stephen, managing editor mstephen@canplastics.com


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