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22nd March 2018, Paris

Lightweighting to drive future growth in Thin Ply

North Thin Ply Technology (NTPT), a leader in lightweight prepreg materials based in Renens, Switzerland, has successfully showcased its full range of Thin Ply solutions at this year’s JEC World trade show, which concluded in Paris earlier this month, with a specific focus on its Thin Ply structural components and tubes for a variety of applications, including marine and aerospace.

The company is currently working in collaboration with several leading aerospace companies on ultra-light composite components for high altitude UAVs. Inside Composites caught up with James Austin, Chief Executive Officer, at the JEC World in Paris to find out what’s new.

James Austin, Chief Executive Officer, NTPT. © Inside Composites

Tell me more about your main focus at this exhibition?

James Austin: At this exhibition, we are specifically promoting our tube manufacturing capability. We have developed a unique way that we can make tubes, where we wind a multi-layer tape material that can contain fibres in various directions, which allows you to produce some interesting structures.

What are the main applications?

JA: So here, for example, we are showcasing a very thin ply tube, with a very thin core material, that we can use in aircraft structures, such as aircraft wing spars. We have specifically received a lot of interest from companies working on eVTOL (electric Vertical Take-Off and Landing) concepts. There are two or three companies, which are in the process of launching their products, possibly to become market changers. Uber, for example, is working on a solution to get taxis into the air, at very low altitudes of about 500 metres.

I think the aerospace market has been shaken up by the rapid progress of some manufacturers in their quest to produce commercial electric vehicles, which means the weight becomes super critical – the battery life directly affects how far you can go, so the lighter the airframe, the longer the distance, the more you can cover and the more routes that you can take.  So, because we are a specialist in these ultra-lightweight materials, we are a natural choice for some of these companies.

In conjunction with Fibre Mechanics, the company offers finished parts. © Inside Composites

What is the future like for this kind of technology?

JA: We think as the world electrifies, and weight becomes increasingly more of an issue, that thin ply gains more relevance, so we see the potential being very-very high. Perhaps, not so much in the near term, but in 5-10 years autonomous electric cars may lead the innovation.

In this scenario, the weight becomes crucial as manufacturers are required to go as light as possible, which is where we come in. Thin Ply materials have in the past been expensive to produce and use as the cost of unit production is higher than that of other suppliers of conventional materials, however we have answered this problem by automating the manufacture of thin ply materials, with our production centre in Poland, so that the people cost is minimised, and affordability comes into a range where it’s cost effective and interesting.

Do you think this may encourage companies to move their production back to US and EU?

JA: By means of automated production, yes. So far, our tube manufacturing process has been the best example of where we focus our R&D effort. The traditional way of manufacturing golf shafts, for example, would be through table-rolling in China to cut the cost down. Originally, they were steel, before investing into graphite and moving the production overseas to get the cost down, and there has been no innovation ever since.

It is frustrating, from the product development point of view, that if you want to try something new in production, you have to go to China, so our mission is to automate the process, so that you can afford to manufacture in your own country. And if I have an automated machine to do that next door to me, my innovation cycle is a lot quicker and more efficient – we can make a golf shaft exactly the same every single time, which isn’t quite the case when you are table-rolling in China.

Golf shafts made using NTPT technology. © Inside Composites

So where are you main customers?

JA: Switzerland can be an expensive place to be based, but it comes with its own benefits – we can take back the control of manufacturing, directly addressing our customers, mainly in Europe and the US.

Anything exciting happening this year at the show for you?

JA: We’ve supported Alex Mordasini, who delivered his presentation at the show this week, where he had to briefly explain his research into NTPT thin ply tubes, as part of the Composite Challenge programme, where 10 PhD student finalists had to pitch their work. So, we were quite happy to learn that he won.

And how is the upgrading of the R&D centre in Switzerland going?

JA: It is doing well, and our target is to complete it by June. We’ve invested in a lot of equipment, including chemical analysis and mechanical analysis, and a lot of it has already been installed and is in production already. So all is on track, and we are really looking forward to having that completed in June, so we can upscale and enhance our R&D capabilities.

NTPT exhibiting at JEC World in Paris. © Inside Composites

Tell me about the new material, the Graph TPT, that you worked on for Richard Mille?

JA: Working very closely with Richard Mille, we were able to run with the nanoloaded resin in our process, and we made a prepreg, which was then made into a block, which was then supplied to Richard Mille and made into a series of watches. The nano-enhancement has meant that the laminate is stronger, and the company used that strength to make a particularly strong watch case.

This material has been a marketing collaboration with McLaren Applied Technologies, so it has only been exclusively made available to McLaren through Richard Mille. It is an interesting application for nanotechnology. We’re always interested in developing new materials for Richard Mille, because the brand likes to use the most progressive materials, and we often work so closely that we happen to be led in different directions.

We would definitely want to repeat the experience and see what we can do for golf shafts, or aircraft structures and other parts and that is something we will work towards when we have our new lab installed.

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