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The Need for Carbon Fiber Could Ground the Flying-Car Future

In the A5, Icon Aircraft has produced an airplane that handles easily, resists dangerous spins, and treats its pilots and passengers to an open, airy cockpit. What the small company hasn’t produced, however, is very many of the bright-white two-seaters: About 65 since 2014, with each selling now for nearly $400,000.

Icon’s struggle to ramp up production of an airplane it initially promised for $139,000 can be blamed mostly on its heavy use of carbon fiber—a material that cuts weight and adds strength, but also adds complexity and cost to the manufacturing process. And while the Vacaville, California-based company has done much to course-correct, its struggle to produce a new kind of aircraft should serve as a warning to the flying flotilla of outfits racing to fill the skies with air taxis.

These electric-powered vertical-lift machines, most using multiple rotors and lift-generating wings along with novel body types, promise rooftop-to-front-lawn commuting and quick crosstown hops within a decade. But if the industry veterans leading Icon, making a fairly conventional winged aircraft, can’t find their footing after a similar stretch of time, what chances do the roughly 130 companies developing a radical new aircraft type for a radical new service actually have?

Carbon fiber is wondrous for its light weight and strength, but it’s a pain to make. The time-intensive process includes laying up resin-soaked carbon-fiber sheets in molds, trimming the pieces after they’ve cured for hours in an oven, and bonding components together.

Icon Aircraft

On a track studded with hurdles like certification, funding, and logistics, the matter of production is easy to ignore. But it’s a vital one, given that most of these companies plan to operate their aircraft as fleets of flying cabs. If there aren’t thousands of these eVTOLs ready to start ferrying passengers about relatively soon after the service launches, the effort could enter a death spiral before you can shout “taxi!” into the sky. A 2018 study by Porsche Consulting projected a market demand for 23,000 eVTOL aircraft by 2035, in a $32 billion passenger market.

Today, no company on Earth makes more than 700 aircraft a year, a factor of complexity and the relatively modest market size. Given that the air-taxi crowd is counting on automobile-like fleet sizes and banking on carbon-fiber construction, they’re starting from zero.

“Mass-produced composite aircraft essentially don’t exist,” says Brian German, an aerospace engineer who studies emerging aviation markets at Georgia Tech. “There’s never been a market big enough to even try it, and the level of investment needed to achieve these rates would be immense.”

Composite Challenges

Carbon fiber is wondrous for its light weight and strength, but it’s a pain to make. The time-intensive process includes laying up resin-soaked carbon-fiber sheets in molds, trimming the pieces after they’ve cured for hours in an oven, and bonding components together.

From the outset, Icon made things even harder on itself. The A5 has 370 individual carbon-fiber parts, totaling 10,000 square feet of the material. They all have to be laid out by hand and then bonded, by hand, into 70 subassemblies. Every change to improve manufacturability requires redesigning other parts, potentially compromising weight, cost, or performance. “There was so much that was not designed for carbon-fiber manufacturability,” says president Thomas Wieners, who joined Icon in 2015. “It was designed purely on flight characteristics and aesthetics. But it proved extremely complicated to build.”

Bentonville, Arkansas-based Game Composites, founded by Walmart heir Steuart Walton, is developing a composite-built aerobatic aircraft primarily as a means of streamlining carbon-fiber production.

Eric Adams

Some eVTOL players appear clued in to the potential misery of production hell. One is Bell, which unveiled its air taxi concept, Nexus, at CES earlier this month. The company has spent eight decades building helicopters and small aircraft, and it knows all about the pain of manufacturing, including with carbon composites. For this new project, Bell’s rapid prototyping and manufacturing leadership works alongside the design team. “There’s never a design review that doesn’t have manufacturing folks present,” says Scott Drennan, vice president of innovation. “They’ll look at a piece and say, 'That’s too expensive to manufacture, so change it to this other process or this other design,’ for example. We’ve learned over 80 years that you can’t underestimate the cost of setting up the manufacturing base.”

The approach of the younger efforts is less clear. Most companies that have announced air taxi programs haven’t publicly discussed manufacturing strategies yet, while others seem to be connecting the dots right out the gate. The latter include Beta Technologies, which this month revealed its prototype, possibly the fastest and largest eVTOL aircraft yet flown.

Aiming to produce a commercial aircraft by 2024, Beta has been working with North Carolina carbon-fiber manufacturer Blue Force Technologies from the get-go. “You’re going to find around the industry some well-funded eVTOL companies that will try to do everything from beginning to end—engineering, analysis, production, and then just hand off specific component plans to a manufacturer,” says Beta CEO Kyle Clark. “That’s destined for failure because manufacturability doesn’t get designed into the aircraft.”

The partnership, Clark says, should ensure that Beta’s final product will be practical and economically feasible, and that it will take full advantage of carbon fiber’s upsides. “If we throw a design over the wall and don’t understand the ‘art of the possible,’ then we miss the opportunity to make the entire design as simple and elegant as we can, wasting no space or weight,” Clark says.

Blue Force CEO Scott Bledsoe says that this is where smaller startups can have an advantage over legacy aircraft manufacturers getting into the eVTOL game. “Big companies talk about integrating product and design teams but often never get there,” says Bledsoe, who worked at Icon early in its history and saw the challenges arise firsthand. “Having teams steering the design with each an equal seat at the table—aerodynamics, propulsion, styling, structures, manufacturing—there’s no turf battle.”

Bledsoe says he’s also able to reign in extravagances in Beta’s design, noting that one of Icon’s early problems centered on its insistence on having a sports-car-like interior, which he says proved expensive and time-consuming to manufacture out of carbon fiber. Furthermore, Blue Force is constantly developing or trialing new composite manufacturing techniques. Among these are thermoplastic composites, a sort of carbon fiber that uses resins that soften when heated. That allows for the shaping of parts when heated, after which they stiffen as they cool. (Conventional carbon-fiber manufacturing requires pieces to be shaped and then baked in an oven to set, a longer and more labor-intensive process.)

Fixes

If Icon is a cautionary tale, another new airplane manufacturer could prove to be an inspiration for the eVTOL. Bentonville, Arkansas-based Game Composites, founded by Walmart heir Steuart Walton, is developing a composite-built aerobatic aircraft primarily as a means of streamlining carbon-fiber production. Company president Philipp Steinbach’s strategy has been to move carefully, taking on one challenge at a time and focusing on quality and consistency of the components it manufactures. So far it has spent only about $3 million, including raw materials, equipment, and salaries, to complete its prototype and fabrication processes.

One factor it has focused on is repairability, citing the challenges of fixing punctures in the field without having to replace entire components, as is often required. “We’ve proven you can repair ours without removing the part and be ready to fly again the next day,” he says. Gamebird uses what’s called wet-layup carbon fiber in its fabrication, which requires workers to add resin to the sheets manually during the layup process. It’s even more time-intensive than the more popular “prepreg” material—which comes with resin infused in the carbon-fiber sheets—but Steinbach says it can be repaired more easily. Such is the material minutiae eVTOL companies will have to manage, and they’re far more than skin-deep.

At Icon, Wieners has focused on bringing automotive-grade production strategies to the aircraft factory, introducing things like lasers that guide workers in their trimming to accelerate that process, and training employees for multiple operations. His advice for air taxi startups sounds weary, but on point. “We certainly wouldn’t do it again the way we did the first time,” he says. “I’d tell people to take smaller chunks of the pie, and create awareness of the money needed, because manufacturing is expensive. Investors don’t like to see this on Powerpoints because it all needs to be sexy and wow—but you really do need buildings, tooling, high technology, and well-trained people.”

Icon might indeed have course-corrected well enough to survive a painful first decade. Wieners says potential customers are still excited about the A5, and that his workforce is motivated by the recent changes. And it could prove more than just an inspirational tale for those scores of would-be highfliers: It’s planning to manufacture carbon-fiber components for that industry too.

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