Composites in demand

As applications increase, researchers seek faster methods for producing composite parts

Tony Velocci
14 January 2019

5 min read

In the 60 years since composites were introduced, their remarkable strength-to-weight ratio and resistance to heat and corrosion have made them the go-to material for many high-performance applications. As both aerospace and automotive OEMs focus on high-volume production challenges, however, researchers are working to accelerate the pace for producing and certifying advanced composite parts.

For decades, the aerospace industry has valued composite materials for their high strength and low weight, which have helped to make commercial aircraft increasingly fuel efficient. To make progress against its massive backlog of orders, however, aerospace now must ramp up its production speeds – a challenge shared by the high volume automotive industry, which needs composites to lower the weight and extend the range of electric-powered cars.

Both industries, however, face a major hurdle in achieving their goals: Compared to other materials, composites take a relatively long time to manufacture – and they take an even longer time for regulators to certify in new applications.

In high-volume car manufacturing, for example, even two to three minutes per part is too long to meet the industry’s high production rates. Meanwhile, certification of Boeing’s 787 aircraft, with its carbon-fiber wing and fuselage, required tens of thousands of hours of tests on physical prototypes, adding significant development time and cost.
All of this translates into pressure on composites researchers to find solutions.

“We must turn the technology development time faster if we are going to meet the needs of our population for products with a high percentage of composites content,” said Byron Pipes, executive director of the Composites Manufacturing Simulation Center at the Indiana Manufacturing Institute (CMSC).

To achieve that goal, Pipes said, researchers must reduce the complexity of designing, analyzing, manufacturing and gaining regulatory approval for new uses of advanced composites.


Part of the solution to accelerating the manufacture of composites and reducing their cost will come from industries building on each other’s progress, Pipes said.

Structural composites, for example, got their start in aerospace, when scientists began pioneering processes, procedures and engineering disciplines for building composite airplane parts. Decades later, manufacturers began applying the material to flight-critical primary structures, including the fuselage and wings.

Meanwhile, makers of leisure products – and then carmakers – slowly embraced composites to replace metal in applications where light weight and unique styling are important but can’t be achieved with aluminum. These industries adapted aerospace technologies to differentiate their product designs while using composites to reduce noise and vibration.

Since 2012, the automotive industry has slashed production cycle times for each composite car and truck part from about eight hours to just a few minutes and has trimmed production costs by nearly 25 percent, said Peter Chivers, chief executive officer of the National Composites Center in Bristol, England. However, the industry needs to shave at least another 25 percent off the 2012 levels to achieve the economies of scale that automotive profitability requires, Chivers said.

In the meantime, the cycle of cross-industry learning is coming full circle. Faced with a combined back order of more than 12,000 passenger and cargo airplanes, most of which include substantial volumes of composite parts, Boeing and Airbus are adapting automotive processes to increase their rates of making and certifying advanced composite structures.

“Can aerospace use the rates and methods developed in the automotive and leisure products industries with the same level of confidence?” Pipes asked rhetorically, explaining the challenge. “I think the answer is ‘yes.’”

Chivers agrees. “In the next five years, you will see a major increase in composites’ use across multiple industries, especially in automotive,” he said.

This computer analysis of an automotive B-Pillar indicates the part’s producibility; blue indicates good manufacturability, yellow indicates questionable sections and red indicates areas for redesign. The yellow shape is a pattern for cutting the flat composite material so that it will fit the part’s mold. (Image © Dassault Systèmes)


As industry innovates, Pipes said, regulators, too, must do their part, by accepting the proven accuracy of powerful computerized simulation and analysis methods to certify composites for new applications.

At Purdue University, where Pipes is the John L. Bray Distinguished Professor of Engineering, researchers are developing Work Flow Apps, a virtual factory hub for composites. The apps allow engineers to simulate whether a specific composite for a specific application will perform precisely as product designers intended.

Work Flow Apps is almost ready for beta testing. It will be delivered via a secure cloud-services platform, ensuring that an industry’s entire value network of OEMs, suppliers and partners has access via a simple web browser. This is an essential feature, Pipes said, because ease of interaction among all suppliers is imperative in collaborative design and in the certification of composite structures.

Purdue and CMSC are working with several composite simulation software vendors to develop the high-rate simulation methods. The goal is to enable engineers to simulate 12 discrete manufacturing processes and accurately predict how specific composites would perform in the real world – including full simulation of crash tests.

Proven simulation accuracy could provide the confidence manufacturers and regulatory agencies need to ensure safety and address liability issues for products made from high-performance composites, without physical testing, Pipes said.

The starboard wing of the clean-sheet A220 (previously designated the C Series) family of commercial jets, which are produced in partnership between Airbus and Bombardier, undergoes final assembly in a Belfast, Ireland factory. More than 30 percent of the body of the single-aisle aircraft, including the wings, is made from advances composite materials. (Image © C Series Aircraft Limited Partnership)


Dale Brosius, chief commercialization officer of the US-funded Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation (IACMI), said the auto industry faces a steep learning curve as consumer demand shifts from gasoline-powered to electric-powered vehicles.

“We have to simultaneously work material development, manufacturing processes, and modeling and simulation tools,” Brosius said. But he also believes that researchers are approaching an inflection point.

“It’s not a question of whether we can [speed up cycle times], but how we do it cost effectively,” he said. “We’re getting closer to accurate high-speed crash prediction for composites, and we are nearing the magical one-partper-minute [rate for] producing continuous fiber components through fast robotics and fast-processing resins.”

In addition, researchers are learning how to produce stronger 3D-printed structures, he said, including the ability to make prototype tooling for high-pressure molding processes with high-temperature carbon-filled thermoplastic materials.


Research and development trends, these experts agree, strongly suggest that high-performance composites will be technically and economically feasible well beyond their current state by the early 2020s.
“The opportunities are huge,” Chivers said, “because more and more people believe the use of composites is the solution to meeting the world’s demand for more innovative products.”

To meet the high production demands of automotive and aerospace companies, engineers as the Institute of Advances Composites Manufacturing Innovation are working on a new methods for accelerating composite-parts manufacturing. (Image © Composites Manufacturing and Simulation Center, Purdue University)

Those products likely will come not only from automotive and aerospace companies, but from leisure goods and sustainable energy applications as well. While advanced composites have proven their value in light-weight applications in auto and aerospace, they also apply to products with complex shapes and advanced styling – including bicycles, golf clubs and lacrosse sticks – that can’t be achieved by bending metal. Advanced composites also reduce noise and vibration, a characteristic important to automobiles, airplanes and wind turbines.

To achieve all of these applications, Pipes said, simulation will be critical to advancing composites, and other technologies too.

“Simulation will become the language of innovation, with the collective knowledge base of engineering communities residing in simulation tools,” Pipes said. “This is where the future is going.”

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