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25th April 2017, UK

Interview with James Austin, CEO, North Thin Ply Technology

Inside Composites interviewed James Austin, CEO, North Thin Ply Technology (NTPT), a leader in lightweight prepreg materials.

Inside Composites: NPTP is a pretty unique company in the composites world. How did it all start?

James Austin: We are pretty unique! It all began in 2001 when the company founders first developed thin ply technology (TPT), initially for the manufacture of lightweight carbon fibre sails for grand prix racing yachts. The “Black Sails” were adopted by the Swiss Alinghi Team and were used to win the 2007 America’s Cup in Valencia before our sister group, North Sails, acquired the rights to the technology under the 3Di brand name.

James Austin, CEO, North Thin Ply Technology. © North Thin Ply Technology

From around 2008 onwards, NTPT continued to work on new uses for the technology in rigid composite applications. The first ultra-thin tapes were used in the Winter Sports markets before further high-tech composite manufacturers started to experience the performance benefits of TPT in yacht masts, aerospace structures, autosport and luxury goods.

Your key technology is based on spread tows. What’s unique about it?

JA: Thin ply technology is really all about spreading the tow of untwisted fibre into the thinnest, flattest and most perfectly aligned prepreg tapes. The evenly distributed, very straight fibres in these spread tow, thin ply prepregs result in composite laminates with a much more uniform microstructure than those produced using conventional multiaxial or woven fabric prepregs.

Our proprietary technology enables efficient spreading of all types of fibres in untwisted yarns or tows, including PAN and pitch based carbon, glass, aramid, quartz, and other fibres.

What are the advantages?

JA: The primary advantage of TPT is an improvement of the mechanical properties of the composite material.

Thin pre-impregnated unidirectional tapes show a better fibre wet-out than conventional prepreg material. Due to the very low thickness of the plies, resin flows in-between every filament during the impregnation process. Furthermore, composites made of thin plies are more homogeneous, with a very even and well controlled resin-fibre distribution. This explains the improved mechanical properties compared to conventional composites.

Solar Impulse. © North Thin Ply Technology

We have conducted our own characterization program, in partnership with Swiss industrials (RUAG Space, RUAG Technology and Connova) and universities (Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne EPFL and the University of Applied Sciences Northwestern Switzerland).

To give you some quantifiable numbers, the program delivered the following results:

  • Better homogeneity of composites with thin plies.
  • A 40% increase in tensile strength of quasi isotropic laminate and +230% in damage onset.
  • +25% in compressive strength on unidirectional laminates.
  • +30% in damage onset on holed QI laminates.
  • +20% in bearing strength on QI laminates.
  • Ten times longer life span on holed QI laminates.

You’ve now expanded manufacturing to composite tube manufacturing. How does this work, what are the benefits and how is it being combined with your existing technology?

JA: Yes, we recently added a unique production capability for tubular structures to our Zory plant in Poland.  The technology can be used for any tubular component such as a drive shaft, tubular support or landing gear strut and brings the benefits of TPT to a fully automated tube manufacturing process.

Our first series production application is our new range of TPT Golf shafts. These are manufactured using lightweight prepreg plies in combination with the new manufacturing process.

A preform tape is designed incorporating the necessary fibres and directions according to the engineering design, and sympathetic to the manufacturing process. The preform is produced using ATL (automatic tape laydown) machines which produce the preforms in a controlled, accurate and cost effective way. The preform layer is then cut into strips which are progressively wound over the mandrel with a defined offset/overlap. Preform design, tape width, overlap and winding angle can be altered to vary the properties of the tube along its length and through its thickness.

Solar Impulse under construction at Decision. © North Thin Ply Technology

Within a golf shaft, or any other tubular product, the use of thinner plies offers nearly unlimited options for fibre angles and fibre type combinations. TPT can place fibres in a chosen direction, anywhere through the thickness and along the length of the tube, even axial fibres in the 0 direction, which can be very difficult with alternative processes like filament winding.

Our process ensures that each of the carbon plies are laid concentrically, resulting in a symmetrical shaft (or tube) with no spine, unlike the traditional table rolling production methods that have dominated the golf market until now. The process also enables a precise control over the ratio of longitudinal plies to off axis plies along the length of the shaft. 

The resulting uniformity of wall thickness and control of fibre alignment provides a smoothly changing flex profile exactly matching the design requirements. 

The use of automation allows manufacture in Europe with a competitive cost base. While most other golf shafts are produced in Asia, the NTPT process is an economically-viable production method to produce tubes local to the engineering centre and customer demand. This allows close collaboration between the NTPT Swiss engineers and operations for rapid iteration and close control of design and quality.

What’s the thinnest prepreg you can supply?

JA: NTPT has always supplied very lightweight prepregs. While our UD prepregs from 300gsm down to 30gsm were already the lightest UD tapes available, we were able to go even lighter in late 2015 and reach a new level at 15gsm.

By working with a carbon fibre supplier to select the most suitable intermediate modulus tow and optimizing our proprietary spreading technology, we could produce 15gsm prepreg tapes that delivered exceptional composite properties as well as being easy to use on our ATL machines.

Is this as thin as such products can go?

JA: The challenge with very thin prepreg plies is always in producing a consistent quality product with perfect fibre alignment that can also be handled and processed reliably in the component production process. This is an area where we have always been very strong but at 15gsm we are getting close to the physical limits of the fibre spreading process. 

NTPT prepreg tape. © North Thin Ply Technology

Our 15gsm prepreg is approximately 15 microns in thickness, compared to the typical filament diameter of the input carbon fibre at between 6 and 8 microns.  Controlling the fibre spreading as we move into this single filament “space” is incredibly challenging and as such I think it may be possible to go slightly lighter to around 12gsm, but not much. But we are always ready for a new challenge!

Your technology has been responsible for your involvement in a wide range of end-use applications. Can you tell us, for example, about, applications in the luxury goods sector?

JA: The quest for supreme lightness, exceptional strength and stunning aesthetics means more and more luxury product manufacturers are looking towards new materials such as TPT prepregs to differentiate their designs.

Our first application in this sector came from another historical Swiss speciality – the manufacture of fine watches. Since 2013, NTPT has enjoyed an exciting collaboration with the prestigious Swiss watch brand Richard Mille, when Thin Ply prepregs were first used in the original TPT Black RM35-01 watch. 

Following on from this initial success, Richard Mille challenged NTPT to develop even more unique materials and award-winning white and red quartz prepregs were created for its stunning new limited edition timepieces.

We have also been able to work with luxury brands producing sunglasses and luxury wrist-wear featuring machined components produced from TPT prepregs.

What about your involvement in the Solar Impulse project?

JA: We have worked with Solar Impulse from the initial stages of the project through our long relationship with Décision SA – the Swiss-based producer of composite components which was selected as the lead supplier of the composite structures. The project’s need for the ultimate in lightweight structures made TPT prepregs a perfect fit.

TPT golf shafts. © North Thin Ply Technology

Décision was responsible for the production of the main carbon fibre composite structures for both the HB-SIA prototype and the current Solar Impulse 2 aircraft, including the wing’s longitudinal beams, the fuselage, vertical and horizontal stabilisers, the engine gondolas and the pilot’s cockpit.

Décision and NTPT collaborated to build Solar Impulse 2’s parts using TPT carbon fibre prepreg. This technology enabled the production of extremely lightweight, high performance composite structures that ensured the safety and reliability of the aircraft on its journey.

It was brilliant to be selected by Decision and to help support the Solar Impulse founders Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg in their vision to fly this ultra-light aircraft around the world powered only by renewable energy.

Going forward for us, this achievement also opens up exciting, new prospects for the world of aeronautics, particularly in the development of solar-powered drones that could remain at high altitude for several months.

And the space telescope project?

JA: This is a really exciting project where our materials have allowed the construction of a foldable space telescope reflector allowing the launch and installation of a significantly larger telescope reflector than has ever been possible before.

The Thin Aperture Light Collector (TALC) Space Telescope Project is in the final stages of securing funding and sees NTPT working as part of a consortium brought together by the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA). The group also includes Multiplast and several top academic institutions. Together we have developed a radical new space telescope design with significantly improved sensitivity and resolution.

An astronomer’s ability to detect smaller and fainter objects is ultimately limited by the size of a telescope’s reflector, and as existing technologies and launch vehicles seemed to have reached a limit with regards to reflector sizes, a new approach has been devised.

The team working on the TALC project has pioneered a revolutionary reflector design and a new stacking technique to enable a massive 20m diameter annular reflector, constructed from sections of carbon fibre composite, to fit within the maximum dimensions of the existing Ariane launch rocket payload fairings.

Rafael Nadal watch made using NTPT quartz prepreg. © North Thin Ply Technology

NTPT will supply a low cure temperature, high Tg, thin ply prepreg for the TALC project using pitch fibres and a cyanate ester resin system. These prepregs will be processed into honeycomb components with small cells for the reflector face supports and larger cells for the backing structure.  The unique anisotropy of the honeycomb we can produce with pitch based carbon fibres provides exceptional stability in the finished composite components – these are critical parameters in the production of a telescope mirror surface that will function as designed in a space environment.

You’ve expanded considerably in the past few years at your plant in Poland. Where do you expect to make progress in 2017 and beyond?

JA: Switzerland is where NTPT’S heritage lies, and the company headquarters remain in Renens, Switzerland. This is where the research and development team develops new and competitively priced technologies specific to each customer application.  As NTPT grew, and new higher volume applications were developed, it became clear that an additional manufacturing facility was required to provide capacity for the growing customer demand for products. After careful analysis, we finally settled on Poland for THE next facility. The new 2,000 sqm factory in Zory was formally opened on June 15th 2016, and provides the company with a well-connected central European manufacturing base and access to a large and technically skilled workforce as they continue to grow.

As well as continuing our growth in the autosport, marine and luxury goods sectors, we also see 2017 as being a very important year for our tubular products manufacturing that also takes place in Zory. 

TPT golf shafts are the first of many applications for this innovative tube winding process and we are seeing massive interest from the Golfing world at all levels. 

Of course, it is nice to see the professionals using our shafts to win Olympic medals and titles at the Majors, but we have also been working hard to set up the club fitting and distribution networks to allow all players to benefit from the improved yardage that our new TPT Golf shafts enable.

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