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1st December 2016, UK

Interview with Oliver Wessely, Director of Sales & Marketing for Non-Crimp Fabric at Hexcel

Oliver Wessely, Director of Sales & Marketing for Non-Crimp Fabric at Hexcel. Hexcel Reinforcements UK, formerly Formax, is a leader in the supply of composite reinforcements, specialising in the production of ultra-lightweight carbon fibre multiaxials and highly engineered glass fibres for the automotive, wind, marine, sports and industrial markets.

Inside Composites talks to Oliver Wessely, Director of Sales & Marketing for Non-Crimp Fabric at Hexcel.

Inside Composites: Please can you tell us a little about the background of the company, prior to becoming Hexcel Reinforcements UK in January this year?

Oliver Wessely: The journey from Formax to Hexcel Reinforcements UK has been a remarkable one. In 1998 we emerged from within an existing textile business based in Leicester, the textiles capital of the UK. The directors of this business recognised a gap in the market for high performance technical textile reinforcements and founded Formax, with the aim of providing performance enhancing multiaxial reinforcements to the marine and industrial markets. In 2001, UK textiles company James Dewhurst purchased 50% of Formax's equity and the company continued to grow consistently, earning a reputation for its approachable ethos and its ability to deliver and engineer optimised reinforcements that met customers’ specific needs. In 2005, the company delivered its first shipment of wind energy fabric to the Austrian site of composites giant Hexcel. In 2010, Formax was awarded the contract to supply carbon reinforcements for the crash tub of McLaren’s P11, and as a result, 2014 saw the opening of its dedicated € 2.5 million Automotive Centre. Equipped with a Carbon Malitronic multiaxial machine, this facility is dedicated to delivering optimised carbon multiaxials to a number of high volume automotive programmes. In December 2014, Formax formed a 50% joint venture with Hexcel, and in January this year Hexcel acquired the remaining interest in the business to form Hexcel Reinforcements UK Ltd.

IC: What are the key advantages of unidirectional and multiaxial fabrics in composites?

OW: Whilst composite components can be produced using any number of plies of unidirectional reinforcement (in fibre, fabric or prepreg form) placed in any fibre orientation, cost and time requirements lead manufacturers to look for other solutions. Multiaxial reinforcements are made up of multiple plies of parallel fibres, each lying in a different orientation or axis. These layers are typically laid down and then stitchbonded on large single or multiple width machines to create a fabric. Multiaxial reinforcements allow manufacturers to process multiple layers of unidirectional fibres in a single fabric thereby offering several advantages over traditional forms of reinforcements:

  • the reinforcing fibres can be placed in different axes to optimise the performance of the finished laminate;
  • no resin-rich areas mean that it is easier to achieve a higher fibre content at lower weight for better performance;
  • non-crimped fibres mean higher tensile and flexural properties in the finished laminate;
  • reduced print-through, especially important on boat hulls and automotive applications;
  • fabrics are easier to cut and handle as the stitching holds the material together during processing;
  • heavier fabric combinations are possible, meaning higher deposition rates;
  • the straight non-crimped fibres within a multiaxial fabric allow good resin penetration and flow which is ideal for infusion and light RTM, whilst the stitching aids resin migration through the layers (Z-direction), perfect for maximising infusion rates.

HiMax carbon fibre fabric. © Hexcel Corporation - all rights reserved

IC: What have been the key benefits of becoming part of Hexcel to date?

OW: Our technologies and products complement the other products in Hexcel’s portfolio. Hexcel has decades of experience in carbon fibre manufacture, resin formulation and fibre reinforced composites and we are able to use these synergies to provide innovative solutions and an improved service to our customers. Our Innovation Centre in Leicester is now part of Hexcel's extensive R&T network, with access to all the resources that provides. Going forward, I expect this to produce interesting and beneficial results as we aim to maintain our position at the leading edge of multiaxials technology. Through Hexcel's extensive worldwide sales and distribution network we also have the opportunity to reach a wider range of customers, working in even more application areas and in more global regions.

IC: Carbon fibre composites are playing an increasingly important role in the manufacture of automotive components and you are working with a number of major customers in this field. Can you tell us about the fabrics you’ve developed specifically for high-volume manufacturing processes?

OW: Our HiMax multiaxials combine excellent structural properties with good drape and handling characteristics and are used extensively in automotive components. The reinforcements are available in a wide range of fabric styles with weights per ply of 50-1200 gsm, fibre orientations from 22.5° through to 90° in up to four layers, and a wide range of fibre types from high performance fibres through to heavy tow materials. The highly drapeable fabrics are suitable for parts with complex curvatures and the ultra-lightweight stitching is ideal for applications that require a Class A surface finish. Earlier in 2016, we showcased a demonstrator part using our HiMax carbon fibre. For mid- to high-volume series automotive production (10,000-100,000 units) composite parts require low cycle times. To help ensure the OEM’s quality and cost targets for this project were met, Hexcel Reinforcements UK created a non-crimp fabric with the optimum balance between drape, stability and permeability. Using an automotive-grade standard modulus, high tow count carbon fibre, we engineered a biaxial fabric with tailored stitch patterns. The high drape HiMax reinforcement conforms to the complex mould geometry of the part, minimising the defects typically seen with standard materials, whilst its permeability is optimised to enable the fast injection and cure times required for high volume manufacturing.

IC: How far do you think carbon parts can realistically penetrate the automotive sector?

OW: This is happening already and will continue as car manufacturers look to save weight, improve fuel consumption and reduce CO2 emissions to meet European directives. Earlier this year Hexcel announced that its innovative CFRP technology has been introduced in the BMW 7 Series where it is used to save weight and reinforce the metal shell of the B-pillar. In the picture below  (Image: © Hexcel Corporation – all rights reserved) is Hexcel’s prepreg preform production unit in Germany. Hexcel supplies BMW with preforms made of unidirectional carbon prepreg set in various orientations and combined with adhesive. The prepreg is made from Hexcel’s HexPly M77 resin system that cures in 1.5 minutes at 160°C. Hexcel’s CFRP solutions are used in standalone and hybrid applications to help not only lighten cars and contribute to overall CO2 reductions, but also help to improve performance and safety through increased strength and durability.

Hexcel’s prepreg preform production unit in Germany. © Hexcel Corporation - all rights reserved

IC: Among other success stories in the aerospace sector, Hexcel is responsible for supplying prepregs for the primary structures of the latest Airbus A350 XWB planes. What is the role of Hexcel Reinforcements UK in such programmes?

OW: Hexcel supplies unidirectional carbon fibre prepreg for the primary composite structures of the A350 XWB and a number of other products for the programme including woven fabrics, but no multiaxials to date. However, the aerospace industry is showing increasing interest in non-crimp fabrics and Hexcel announced earlier this year that the Formax acquisition will allow the company to further advance dry reinforcements technology for future aerospace applications.

IC: In September last year, you opened a dedicated Innovation Centre at your Leicester headquarters and in April Hexcel also opened a new £6 million Research and Technology plant in Duxford, UK. What are the key issues currently driving research and development?

OW: The Innovation Centre in Leicester leads research into optimising multiaxial reinforcements for technically challenging applications. Key areas of expertise include testing and characterisation of fabric architecture, developing new products based on novel fabric architecture, and recycling. Over recent years we’ve seen an increase in demand for simulation support, led by automotive customers and their need to simulate process and performance during the early stages of product design. Working closely with the University of Nottingham we’ve commissioned a bespoke permeability measurement rig which provides estimates for permeability at a given volume fraction. These values can be used with analytical hand-calculation methods or flow simulation software to provide predictions of fill time and dry spots. The Duxford site is Hexcel’s largest centre for research into resin systems and adhesives. Duxford is also Hexcel’s centre of excellence for process technology including product scale-up and research into new processes for making composite materials, including quality control methods.

The Duxford site is Hexcel’s largest centre for research into resin systems and adhesives. © Hexcel Corporation - all rights reserved

IC: What do you consider to be the biggest developments impacting the composites sector since 2000?

OW: The need to reduce weight, to make everything from aircraft to cars more fuel efficient and to reduce the carbon footprint, has been a huge driver in the growth of the composites industry, combined with the need for greater safety and durability. Also, the design freedom that composites allow, with materials being tailor-made to suit the specific performance requirements of an application. The versatility of composites enables the right material to be put in the right place for optimum performance.

www.hexcel.com

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