Manufacturing and In-Service Damage of Composite Materials

Manufacturing Defects

Manufacturing defects include:
  • Delamination
  • Resin starved areas
  • Resin rich areas
  • Blisters, air bubbles
  • Wrinkles
  • Voids
  • Thermal decomposition

Manufacturing damage includes anomalies, such as porosity, microcracking, and delaminations resulting from processing discrepancies. It also includes such items as inadvertent edge cuts, surface gouges and scratches, damaged fastener holes, and impact damage. Examples of flaws occurring in manufacturing include a contaminated bondline surface or inclusions, such as prepreg backing paper or separation film, that is inadvertently left between plies during layup. Inadvertent (nonprocess) damage can occur in detail parts or components during assembly or transport or during operation.

A part is resin rich if too much resin is used, for nonstructural applications this is not necessarily bad, but it adds weight. A part is called resin starved if too much resin is bled off during the curing process or if not enough resin is applied during the wet layup process. Resin-starved areas are indicated by fibers that show to the surface.The ratio of 60:40 fiber to resin ratio is considered optimum.

Sources of manufacturing defects include:
  • Improper cure or processing
  • Improper machining
  • Mishandling
  • Improper drilling
  • Tool drops
  • Contamination
  • Improper sanding
  • Substandard material
  • Inadequate tooling
  • Mislocation of holes or details

Damage can occur at several scales within the composite material and structural configuration. This ranges from damage in the matrix and fiber to broken elements and failure of bonded or bolted attachments. The extent of damage controls repeated load life and residual strength and is critical to damage tolerance.

Fiber Breakage

Fiber breakage can be critical because structures are typically designed to be fiber dominant (i.e., fibers carry most of the loads). Fortunately, fiber failure is typically limited to a zone near the point of impact and is constrained by the impact object size and energy. Only a few of the service-related events listed in the previous section could lead to large areas of fiber damage.

Matrix Imperfections

Matrix imperfections usually occur on the matrix-fiber interface or in the matrix parallel to the fibers. These imperfections can slightly reduce some of the material properties but are seldom critical to the structure, unless the matrix degradation is widespread. Accumulation of matrix cracks can cause the degradation of matrix-dominated properties. For laminates designed to transmit loads with their fibers (fiber dominant), only a slight reduction of properties is observed when the matrix is severely damaged. Matrix cracks, or microcracks, can significantly reduce properties dependent on the resin or the fiber-resin interface, such as interlaminar shear and compression strength. Micro-cracking can have a very negative effect on properties of high-temperature resins. Matrix imperfections may develop into delaminations, which are a more critical type of damage.

Delamination and Debonds

Delaminations form on the interface between the layers in the laminate. Delaminations may form from matrix cracks that grow into the interlaminar layer or from low-energy impact. Debonds can also form from production nonadhesion along the bondline between two elements and initiate delamination in adjacent laminate layers. Under certain conditions, delaminations or debonds can grow when subjected to repeated loading and can cause catastrophic failure when the laminate is loaded in compression. The criticality of delaminations or debonds depend on:
  • Dimensions.
  • Number of delaminations at a given location.
  • Location—in the thickness of laminate, in the structure, proximity to free edges, stress concentration region, geometrical discontinuities, etc.
  • Loads—behavior of delaminations and debonds depend on loading type. They have little effect on the response of laminates loaded in tension. Under compression or shear loading, however, the sublaminates adjacent to the delaminations or debonded elements may buckle and cause a load redistribution mechanism that leads to structural failure.

Combinations of Damages

In general, impact events cause combinations of damages. High-energy impacts by large objects (e.g., turbine blades) may lead to broken elements and failed attachments. The resulting damage may include significant fiber failure, matrix cracking, delamination, broken fasteners, and debonded elements. Damage caused by low-energy impact is more contained, but may also include a combination of broken fibers, matrix cracks, and multiple delaminations.

Flawed Fastener Holes

Improper hole drilling, poor fastener installation, and missing fasteners may occur in manufacturing. Hole elongation can occur due to repeated load cycling in service.

In-Service Defects

In-service defects include:
  • Environmental degradation
  • Impact damage
  • Fatigue
  • Cracks from local overload
  • Debonding
  • Delamination
  • Fiber fracturing
  • Erosion

Many honeycomb structures, such as wing spoilers, fairings, flight controls, and landing gear doors, have thin face sheets which have experienced durability problems that could be grouped into three categories: low resistance to impact, liquid ingression, and erosion. These structures have adequate stiffness and strength but low resistance to a service environment in which parts are crawled over, tools dropped, and service personnel are often unaware of the fragility of thin-skinned sandwich parts. Damages to these components, such as core crush, impact damages, and disbonds, are quite often easy to detect with a visual inspection due to their thin face sheets. However, they are sometimes overlooked or damaged by service personnel who do not want to delay aircraft departure or bring attention to their accidents, which might reflect poorly on their performance record. Therefore, damages are sometimes allowed to go unchecked, often resulting in growth of the damage due to liquid ingression into the core. Nondurable design details (e.g., improper core edge close-outs) also lead to liquid ingression.

The repair of parts due to liquid ingression can vary depending on the liquid, most commonly water or Skydrol (hydraulic fluid). Water tends to create additional damage in repaired parts when cured unless all moisture is removed from the part. Most repair material systems cure at temperatures above the boiling point of water, which can cause a disbond at the skin-to-core interface wherever trapped water resides. For this reason, core drying cycles are typically included prior to performing any repair. Some operators take the extra step of placing a damaged but unrepaired part in the autoclave to dry to preclude any additional damage from occurring during the cure of the repair. Skydrol presents a different problem. Once the core of a sandwich part is saturated, complete removal of Skydrol is almost impossible. The part continues to weep the liquid even in cure until bondlines can become contaminated and full bonding does not occur. Removal of contaminated core and adhesive as part of the repair is highly recommended. [Figure 1]

Aircraft Composite Materials
Figure 1. Damage to radome honeycomb sandwich structure

Erosion capabilities of composite materials have been known to be less than that of aluminum and, as a result, their application in leading-edge surfaces has been generally avoided. However, composites have been used in areas of highly complex geometry, but generally with an erosion coating. The durability and maintainability of some erosion coatings are less than ideal. Another problem, not as obvious as the first, is that edges of doors or panels can erode if they are exposed to the air stream. This erosion can be attributed to improper design or installation/fit-up. On the other hand, metal structures in contact or in the vicinity of these composite parts may show corrosion damage due to inappropriate choice of aluminum alloy, damaged corrosion sealant of metal parts during assembly or at splices, or insufficient sealant and/or lack of glass fabric isolation plies at the interfaces of spars, ribs, and fittings. [Figure 2]

Aircraft Composite Materials
Figure 2. Erosion damage to wingtip


Many fiberglass and Kevlar® parts have a fine aluminum mesh for lightning protection. This aluminum mesh often corrodes around the bolt or screw holes. The corrosion affects the electrical bonding of the panel, and the aluminum mesh needs to be removed and new mesh installed to restore the electrical bonding of the panel. [Figure 3]

Aircraft Composite Materials
Figure 3. Corrosion of aluminum lightning protection mesh

Ultraviolet (UV) light affects the strength of composite materials. Composite structures need to be protected by a top coating to prevent the effects of UV light. Special UV primers and paints have been developed to protect composite materials.

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