Composite Structures – Laminated Structures

in Advanced Composite Materials


Composite materials are becoming more important in the construction of aerospace structures. Aircraft parts made from composite materials, such as fairings, spoilers, and flight controls, were developed during the 1960s for their weight savings over aluminum parts. New generation large aircraft are designed with all composite fuselage and wing structures, and the repair of these advanced composite materials requires an in-depth knowledge of composite structures, materials, and tooling. The primary advantages of composite materials are their high strength, relatively low weight, and corrosion resistance.

Laminated Structures

Composite materials consist of a combination of materials that are mixed together to achieve specific structural properties. The individual materials do not dissolve or merge completely in the composite, but they act together as one. Normally, the components can be physically identified as they interface with one another. The properties of the composite material are superior to the properties of the individual materials from which it is constructed.

An advanced composite material is made of a fibrous material embedded in a resin matrix, generally laminated with fibers oriented in alternating directions to give the material strength and stiffness. Fibrous materials are not new; wood is the most common fibrous structural material known to man.

Applications of composites on aircraft include:

  • Fairings
  • Flight control surfaces
  • Landing gear doors
  • Leading and trailing edge panels on the wing and stabilizer
  • Interior components
  • Floor beams and floor boards
  • Vertical and horizontal stabilizer primary structure on large aircraft
  • Primary wing and fuselage structure on new generation large aircraft
  • Turbine engine fan blades
  • Propellers

Major Components of a Laminate

An isotropic material has uniform properties in all directions. The measured properties of an isotropic material are independent of the axis of testing. Metals such as aluminum and titanium are examples of isotropic materials.

A fiber is the primary load carrying element of the composite material. The composite material is only strong and stiff in the direction of the fibers. Unidirectional composites have predominant mechanical properties in one direction and are said to be anisotropic, having mechanical and/or physical properties that vary with direction relative to natural reference axes inherent in the material. Components made from fiberreinforced composites can be designed so that the fiber orientation produces optimum mechanical properties, but they can only approach the true isotropic nature of metals, such as aluminum and titanium.

A matrix supports the fibers and bonds them together in the composite material. The matrix transfers any applied loads to the fibers, keeps the fibers in their position and chosen orientation, gives the composite environmental resistance, and determines the maximum service temperature of a composite.

Strength Characteristics

Structural properties, such as stiffness, dimensional stability, and strength of a composite laminate, depend on the stacking sequence of the plies. The stacking sequence describes the distribution of ply orientations through the laminate thickness. As the number of plies with chosen orientations increases, more stacking sequences are possible. For example, a symmetric eight-ply laminate with four different ply orientations has 24 different stacking sequences.

Fiber Orientation

The strength and stiffness of a composite buildup depends on the orientation sequence of the plies. The practical range of strength and stiffness of carbon fiber extends from values as low as those provided by fiberglass to as high as those provided by titanium. This range of values is determined by the orientation of the plies to the applied load. Proper selection of ply orientation in advanced composite materials is necessary to provide a structurally efficient design. The part might require 0° plies to react to axial loads, ±45° plies to react to shear loads, and 90° plies to react to side loads. Because the strength design requirements are a function of the applied load direction, ply orientation and ply sequence have to be correct. It is critical during a repair to replace each damaged ply with a ply of the same material and ply orientation.

The fibers in a unidirectional material run in one direction and the strength and stiffness is only in the direction of the fiber. Pre-impregnated (prepreg) tape is an example of a unidirectional ply orientation.

The fibers in a bidirectional material run in two directions, typically 90° apart. A plain weave fabric is an example of a bidirectional ply orientation. These ply orientations have strength in both directions but not necessarily the same strength. [Figure 7-1]

Figure 7-1. Bidirectional and unidirectional material properties.

Figure 7-1. Bidirectional and unidirectional material properties.

The plies of a quasi-isotropic layup are stacked in a 0°, –45°, 45°, and 90° sequence or in a 0°, –60°, and 60° sequence. [Figure 7-2] These types of ply orientation simulate the properties of an isotropic material. Many aerospace composite structures are made of quasi-isotropic materials.

Figure 7-2. Quasi-isotropic material lay-up.

Figure 7-2. Quasi-isotropic material lay-up.

Warp Clock

Warp indicates the longitudinal fibers of a fabric. The warp is the high strength direction due to the straightness of the fibers. A warp clock is used to describe direction of fibers on a diagram, spec sheet, or manufacturer’s sheets. If the warp clock is not available on the fabric, the orientation is defaulted to zero as the fabric comes off the roll. Therefore, 90° to zero is the width of the fabric across. [Figure 7-3]

Figure 7-3. A warp clock.

Figure 7-3. A warp clock.