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18th July 2018, Farnborough

Interview with Richard Thompson, Commercial Director, Alvant

Richard Thompson, Commercial Director for Alvant. © Alvant  Inside Composites spoke to Richard Thompson, Commercial Director for Alvant at Innovate UK’s stand at the Farnborough Airshow.

Most recently senior market development manager with Williams Advanced Engineering, Thompson joined Alvant in October 2017 and is an expert in strategic market development.

Alvant was previously Composite Metal Technology (CMT) – why the name change?

Richard Thompson: The name change was necessary as Alvant transformed from an R&D company into the provider of high-strength, low-weight aluminium matrix composites (AMCs). As the owner of the proprietary rights to the AMC manufacturing process and full-service capability, Alvant is now offering clients everything from engineering consultancy, concept development, and component design through to prototype manufacture, low-volume production, and intellectual property licensing for high-volume production.

Could you tell us a little about AMCs and your proprietary liquid pressure process for manufacturing?

RT: Aluminium matrix composites are an advanced class of composite materials suitable for applications where conventional metals are expected to approach or exceed their performance limits.

Alvant was established as CMT in 2003 to explore the potential of liquid pressure forming (LPF), the process for manufacturing AMCs. The company’s original, primary role was as a research and development operation, to develop and refine LPF, which resulted in the creation of the more sophisticated process known as advanced liquid pressure forming (ALPF).

ALPF is the method by which Alvant brings together aluminium, which acts as the matrix, and a high strength reinforcement fibre to create a high-performance aluminium matrix composite material.

What are the key advantages of AMCs?

RT: AMCs provide the strength and stiffness of steel at less than half the weight. This means that highly loaded components made from traditional metals, such as steel, titanium and aluminium, can be replaced by lightweight, low inertia parts without any increase in package size.

The production-readiness of AMCs comes at a time of increasing commercial demand for strong but lightweight components in many forms of transportation, as well as industrial and consumer applications. Aerospace, automotive, marine and consumer goods manufacturers are all looking for ways to increase product capabilities and performance while simultaneously meeting ambitious goals for fuel efficiency and sustainability – conflicting challenges in which Alvant’s AMCs are an attractive solution.

Alvant is exhibiting at the Farnborough International Airshow. © Alvant

How do they sit price-wise?

RT: Alvant’s AMC materials are a capability enhancement solution and offer a good value alternative to carbon composites over the whole product lifecycle. 

You have mentioned certain disadvantages with carbon and polymer composites, can you elaborate?

RT: Alvant developed and refined aluminium matrix composites during the years when high-tech industries were going through the honeymoon period with carbon composites. Nowadays, certain disadvantages with carbon composites and polymer composites are better understood.

Product manufacturers are becoming more aware of how AMCs can sometimes be a better alternative than other composite materials or unreinforced metals, and the calibre of partners signing-up to new projects with Alvant is evidence of this.

Among the current projects you are involved in, you are working with Safran on the development of aircraft landing gear, what can be improved here?

RT: The aerospace industry faces the challenge of finding suitable materials that will reduce weight and fuel burn whilst maintaining reliability and lowering whole-life ownership costs. AMCs offer an exciting potential to an industry that needs a step change in performance to meet ever-stringent market and legislative demands. We believe AMCs can offer reductions in weight of 30 per cent compared to legacy materials. Now is the time for the industry to stop relying on traditional technologies and embrace change.

With Ford, you are looking at casting hybrid-AMCs. Can you say a little more about the aim of this project?

RT: Alvant has been engaged in a £1.6million, 30-month R&D project with Ford since October 2017, developing a new casting method for the manufacture of hybrid-AMC components for high-performance production cars. For this project Alvant was awarded £751,000 of grant funding from Innovate UK.

Components. © Alvant

In May we concluded a three-year, £1.2 million R&D project under the ‘Make it lighter, with less’ competition run by Innovate UK, collaborating with industry world-leader GE Aviation, electric motors and controllers producer Yasa Motors and the National Composites Centre. This project created new computer aided engineering (CAE) software modelling packages for the design and analysis of AMCs to reduce product development lead times.

Alvant has the internationally-recognised ISO 9001:2015 quality management system accreditation and is currently working towards obtaining the AS9000 aerospace accreditation and the automotive accreditation, TS16949.        

What are the relative strengths and weaknesses of working in the UK and what impact do you expect Brexit to have?

RT: Working in the UK allows Alvant to exploit the diverse supply chain that is based within this country. As the company grows we will look to expand outside of the UK but at present the UK’s manufacturing and supply chain eco-system allows the company to be agile and responsive to various customer requests.

With regards to Brexit, this would of course, depend upon whether or not the UK is able to negotiate a satisfactory trade agreement with the EU before the fast approaching deadline.  Despite the high level of uncertainty over whether or not this will be possible, we remain cautiously bullish about our future prospects post Brexit. The UK is fast becoming recognised as a world leader for technical innovation, and there is no real competition for our novel advanced materials for the vast majority of the engineering applications that we are targeting. Outside of Europe two of the biggest potential markets for our products are the USA and Japan, so Brexit could help us to penetrate these two key markets by opening up the rest of the world.

How important is government support to the UK’s composites industry?

RT: Very. We completed a £7.9 million four-year collaborative project to bring AMC technology to production readiness in April last year, which included £1.9 million of funding from the government-backed Advanced Manufacturing Supply Chain Initiative (AMCSI),

The growing interest in AMCs is affirmed by big-brand collaborative projects along with this government funding.

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