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Style with function for high flyers

02 April 2012

A leading aircraft cabin design firm and a high-performance thermoplastic sheet producer team up to shape the future of aircraft interiors.

Acumen is a transportation and product design consultant and a global expert in aircraft interior cabin design. Having partnered with more than 20 of the world’s leading airlines and their aircraft seating manufacturers, Acumen prides itself in delivering highly innovative and frequently patented product designs that are said to challenge current industry standards. Included in this portfolio is the groundbreaking ‘bed in the sky’ first launched by British Airways.

When designing premium seating solutions, Acumen typically turns to high performance thermoplastic sheet for components such as side furniture panelling, back-shelves (in first class), trays (economy class), literature pockets, entertainment screens, and first-class privacy screens.

A search for a ‘durable, aircraft-compliant, gloss black finish’ for a new aircraft seating programme initially led Acumen to the US-based calendered, extruded and press-laminated rigid plastic film and sheet producer, Boltaron. Three years later, and Acumen has developed several design concepts for interior aircraft applications for which Boltaron aircraft-rated thermoplastic sheet products are now recommended. Acumen’s Catherine Barber takes up the story:

“The reason I work with Boltaron is that they are open to new ideas and innovations in decorative finishes. They understand the technical challenges, but are not closed minded to experimenting with new treatments and materials and providing customised solutions.” She says this relationship expands Acumen’s design options with a wide choice of colours, levels of gloss, patterns and textures, including metallic finishes and realistic wood grain effects.

For one particular seating programme, Acumen Design sought a pearlescent thermoplastic that would match the pearlescent paint finishes that are increasingly being adopted for aircraft seating programmes. At the time, there were no such plastic sheet products on the market. According to Ms Barber, Boltaron nonetheless managed to locate the special materials needed to produce exact colour matches to these paint finishes.

Applying contemporary finishes
Acumen Design and Boltaron are currently developing completely new types of thermoplastic sheet for an Airbus 380 programme. “For the first time, we can develop aircraft-compatible products that look like contemporary finishes currently used in high-end restaurants and hotel interiors,” says Ms Barber, adding that Acumen now has a broad standard range of textured sheet suitable for vacuum forming at its disposal, allowing her to add a “subtle design element” to what otherwise would typically be large expanses of plain plastic.

She says designers seek a texture range to add an extra dimension. “Plastic sheet need not mimic natural materials, but textures can be used to add interest. “While such finishes have long been used in automotive interiors, they have been relatively slow to reach aviation suppliers.”

Boltaron’s thermoplastic sheet manufacturing capabilities, which include extrusion, calendering and press laminating, also gives Acumen a lot or leeway in its designs. Each of these processes produces a range of sheet products with distinct qualities. Sheet produced using more than one of these processes, for example, can be fused in-line or off-line to create a selection of composite sheet products that any single production process cannot achieve.

In extrusion, the original powder blend is converted into a molten plastic mass that is squeezed through a lip die, flattening the mass into a sheet of designated width and thickness. The process lends itself to multiple custom colours, textures and gauges.

Calendering produces a thinner gauge sheet than does extrusion. Molten plastic is fed into a series of heated revolving rollers that squeeze the material to the desired thickness. The resulting film can cap thicker gauge extruded sheet to produce composite sheet products that offer superior aesthetics and/or special properties, including resistance to chemicals, impact, scratching and UV degradation.

Calendered cap films include integral metallic-effect, and clear films that are reverse-printed with custom patterns such as wood grains, pearlescent effects, abstracts, and woven looks. Substrate colours match the predominant printed colour to render scratches inconspicuous.

In press laminating, multiple sheets of calendered or extruded sheet are layered and fused applying heat and pressure over relatively long cycle times to form one compact solid sheet. Individual sheets comprising the layers can be varied to provide coloration, patterns, texture, reinforcement or special properties.

Most sheet that Acumen applies is typically 2 to 3mm thick for thermoforming of solid colours, and up to 6mm thick for clear sheet - the specification for sheet thickness being dependent on key factors such as structural support and rigidity.

Expanding horizons
Lately, Acumen and Boltaron have been exploring possibilities for the new Boltaron 9915FSTH aircraft grade decorative sheet, a proprietary composite of Boltaron thermoplastic sheet and Lexan XHR6000 from SABIC Innovative Plastics.

The material is offered in numerous colours, textures and decorative effects such as wood grain, pearlescent and carbon fibre-like surfaces. Currently, this composite is specified for relatively small- to medium-sized parts, but Acumen foresees a demand for larger components such as bulkheads, as well as components for other transportation applications. The new sheet meets aviation regulation standards (ABD0031, BSS7239 and D65137) for flammability, smoke toxicity and heat release.

The two companies have also been collaborating to develop transparent and frosted translucent designs of Boltaron 9816 sheet for aircraft interiors such as first-class transparent/refractive privacy screens.

Style – but not at the expense of function
Acumen strives to create designs that strike a balance between style and functionality. The firm this through a product design development cycle in which the sheet product is only applied at the last stage. First, a 3D CAD model is created that, once approved by the airline, is sent to various seating manufacturers who bid on the project.

Acumen then creates a prototype, typically of wood and foam painted with an emulsion coating, to provide a realistic representation of appearance, passenger space, storage space and overall functionality. Further prototypes may then be required as the design is refined. Finally, a pre-production (functional) model is fabricated by the seating manufacturer using the aircraft rated materials as recommended by Acumen, prior to full-scale production.

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