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Adrian Wilson

Editor's Viewpoint

2nd February 2017, UK

Strength in numbers: Collaborations pay deep dividends

The composites industry has always had extended supply chains and highly-developed partnerships, with players from all parts of the industry involved in projects to their mutual benefit.

This is most evident at the annual JEC Innovation Awards, which once again will be held during the JEC Composites show in Paris this march.

A320neo parts in Japan

The winner in the Aerospace category, for example, Japan’s IHI Corporation partnered with four other Japanese companies – Shindo, Mitsuya, Toray, Mitsubishi – along with the Industrial Technology Centre of Fukui Prefecture, for the development of a lightweight composite system for the fans which are now being applied in the engines of Airbus A320neo planes.

Japan’s IHI Corporation partnered with four other Japanese companies for the development of a lightweight composite system for the fans. © IHI Corporation

To further increase fuel efficiency in the A320neo engines, the bypass ratio – the ratio between the mass flow rate at the entrance of the engine to the mass flow rate entering the core – needed to be increased. This demanded a larger fan case, which, if it was made with traditional materials, would greatly increase the weight of the engine and negate some of the gain efficiency.

This is the first time that thermoplastic composites have selected for primary structure parts in aircraft engines. The thermoset used for the fan case was also developed to show superior impact energy absorption against high-velocity impact.

Near-net-shape T-RTM in Germany

A seven-way collaboration involving Germany’s KraussMaffei Dieffenbacher, Saertex, Henkel, Handtmann and TUM/LCC, along with Austria’s Alpex Technologies was meanwhile behind the development of the near-net-shape T-RTM (thermoplastic resin transfer moulding) process which will receive the JEC 2016 Automotive, Structural Innovation Award.

This new process combines the advantages of thermoplastic resin and the design freedom offered by HP-RTM technology for complex parts and to demonstrate its potential, a roof frame for the Roding roadster was re-designed.

A seven-way collaboration was behind the development of the near-net-shape T-RTM in Germany. ©  KraussMaffei Dieffenbacher

The roof structure is made of a complex multi-preform part with hybrid textiles and integrated metal inserts, impregnated with a low-viscosity polyamide 6 by HP-RTM. This low viscosity allows better impregnation of the fibres and a higher fibre-volume-fraction, resulting in improved mechanical properties and an overall reduced wall thickness, which reduces material cost.

Fast RTM in France

The industry in France has long been a devotee of clusters of companies and a series of innovations developed by no less than eleven French companies were brought together within the Fast RTM project for the automotive industry. This is the JEC 2017 Process Innovation Award winner.

The aim of the project was to demonstrate the feasibility of mass-produced structural composite automotive parts using reactive RTM processes. This fully-automated platform is based on C-RTM (compression resin transfer moulding) and is compatible with reactive thermoplastic and thermoset resins, which impregnate the part faster and better than RTM and make the process flexible and adaptable to the needs of car manufacturers.

The JEC 2017 Process Innovation Award winner. © Fast RTM

In respect of the contribution of individual companies, Pinette PEI developed the compact press and loading and unloading device, Compose the tooling for net-shape parts and SISE a cost-effective thermoregulation system. Chomarat supplied optimised reinforcement materials and both Hexion and Arkema contributed reactive resins. Composite Integrity developed the closed-mould process, while Renault, Faurecia and Hutchinson were all involved in the integration and design.

These individual developments resulted in the creation of an industrial-scale platform. The Fast RTM platform can produce large fully net-shape, functionalised and structural composite parts of up to three square metres in a cycle time of 120 seconds.

Boosting US innovation

The USA has certainly been taking note of such fruitful and ongoing collaborative developments taking place in Europe and Japan, and the establishment of the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation (IACMI) is now bringing together industry, universities, national laboratories, and federal, state and local governments to share resources and co-invest to accelerate the development and commercial deployment of advanced composites. It is supported by a $70 million commitment from the US Department of Energy’s Advanced Manufacturing Office, and over $180 million committed from partners.

The establishment of the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation (IACMI) is now bringing together industry, universities, national laboratories, and federal, state and local governments. © IACMI

Will new president Donald Trump’s stated aim of boosting US manufacturing see the intensification of such activities? It’s hard to even guess at this stage.

Clusters in the UK

Similarly, the UK’s four-year Composites Innovation Cluster (CiC) aimed at improving the competitiveness of the country’s composites industry and post-Brexit, such ventures may prove more important than ever going forward.

Between 2013 and the end of 2016, the CiC initiated a total of 17 projects organised along four key themes – Knowledge, Material, Process and Automation – with big corporations drawn into becoming involved in the CiC projects due to the pressing need to develop new short cycle processes and establish dedicated new supply chains for composites production for automotive and aerospace parts.

Between 2013 and the end of 2016, the CiC initiated a total of 17 projects. © CiC

The CiC was funded to the tune of £10.9 mn by the UK’s Advanced Manufacturing Supply Chain Initiative (AMSCI) with a further £11.5 mn contributed by the companies involved, although this does not always mean direct investment, but takes into consideration time and the other costs for participation.

In total, some 31 organisations were involved in CiC work, which it has been estimated will add £100 million annually in additional revenues for the next five years.

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