Material ambitions

New research center at Purdue aims to solve composites’ sticky challenges

Tony Velocci
28 October 2020

5 min read

For years, Purdue University’s Composites Manufacturing Simulation Center has attracted researchers from companies facing difficult challenges in developing and manufacturing advanced composite materials. With today's launch of the center’s new sister research lab – the 3DEXPERIENCE Education Center of Excellence in Advanced Composites – the lure for researchers has become even stronger.  

With researchers everywhere striving to push the boundaries of technology – from anti-viral vaccines to carbon reduction – plenty of laboratories focus on solving complex problems. But at Purdue University, a new academic-industrial partnership is focused on a challenge that could provide the key to solving a host of other challenges: accelerating the production of high-performance composites and reducing their cost.

R. Byron Pipes, director of the Indiana Manufacturing Institute, executive director of the institute’s Composites Manufacturing Simulation Center, and director of the new 3DEXPERIENCE Education Center

With an unparalleled ratio of high strength to low weight, composites are central to enabling many of the green technologies that could help address the climate-change challenge. Zero-carbon electric airplanes and automobiles, for example, must be light enough to travel reasonable distances when powered by batteries, solar energy or hydrogen, yet strong enough to be safe and durable. These same requirements apply to renewable energy applications such as wind turbines, which must be light enough to move in the slightest breeze, yet strong enough to survive major wind gusts.

Technical challenges stand in the way, however, including the fact that some forms of composites – with their complex layers of fibers and resins – are expensive to manufacture and can take years to certify in highly regulated industries.

The 3DEXPERIENCE Education Center of Excellence in Advanced Composites, formally dedicated at Purdue University today (October 28, 2020), aims to help researchers solve those challenges, and many more.

“There’s no other research and education facility like it in the world,” said R. Byron Pipes, director of the Indiana Manufacturing Institute, executive director of the institute’s Composites Manufacturing Simulation Center, and director of the new 3DEXPERIENCE Education Center. “The team of experts and scholars we’ve assembled are the best in the world.”

SEEING IS BELIEVING 

The center is the latest evolution of a long-standing partnership between Purdue and Dassault Systèmes and is supported by industry sponsors that include Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Volkswagen. “We’ve had an eight-year relationship with Dassault Systèmes, and this new facility takes that relationship to a higher level,” Pipes said.

The center is housed in the Purdue Research Park in West Lafayette, Indiana — the largest university-affiliated technology incubation complex in the United States. Organizers celebrated the center’s dedication by demonstrating some of the digital and virtual technologies that will allow scientists and engineers to imagine sustainable innovations and cutting-edge manufacturing techniques for advanced composites.

“As simple as that sounds, it’s not,” Pipes said. “This will be a huge step. We’ll be simulating manufacturing processes and the performance of products made from advanced composites from experienced-based knowledge in the past.”

“Using new manufacturing techniques and the integrated digital technologies at our disposal, we believe we can cut the time to produce advanced composite products by 50%.”

R. Byron Pipes
Director, 3DEXPERIENCE Education Center of Excellence in Advanced Composites

Among the center’s goals: better understanding of composites and their behavior, and accelerated discovery enabled by applying 3D virtual modeling and simulation to the challenge. To facilitate that aspect of the research, modeling and simulation will be conducted on the 3DEXPERIENCE platform, which manages all of the processes and data used in 3D modeling and simulation, facilitates collaboration among researchers, maintains a complete history of the work, and tracks all remaining tasks.

“We’ll be users and proponents of this platform on which the digital thread – a digital record of a product or process across its entire lifecycle – of composites manufacturing and product performance is contained,” Pipes said. “Most labs never used the manufacturing simulation; they only tested product performance.”

EDUCATIONAL ADVANCEMENT

In effect, Pipes said, the center delivers on the 2003 vision of now-retired Boeing Chief Technology Officer John Tracy, expressed when the company decided to build the 787 Dreamliner, the world’s first all-composite passenger jet. Tracy and his colleagues recognized the technical challenges of an all-composite jet and knew that solving them would require not only digital design and development technology, but also a completely new set of engineering competencies. 

Another of the center’s goals is to educate current and future scientists and engineers to make the best use of modeling and simulation in their work.

“Talent development has always been one of our major contributions to society,” Pipes said. “We take information from the laboratory directly to the classroom. That’s the fastest way to transfer knowledge, so students can act on it.”

Creating a digital record of carbon fiber prepreg manufacturing (shown here) and processing is a key focus for Hexcel. In addition, Hexcel is working with the 3DEXPERIENCE Education Center of Excellence in Advanced Composites at Purdue University on developing pre-qualified data for the company’s new thermoplastic composite, which will allow engineers to simulate how to incorporate the material into new products and how to manufacture them. (Image © Hexcel)

Pipes restates Tracy’s vision as a question: Can a digital twin – a scientifically accurate, virtual replica of a product, system or process that exists or will be created in the physical world – also replicate the complex engineering process for creating a composite product? And, if so, can engineers employ the digital twin – also known as a virtual twin because data is displayed as a dynamic 3D model – to not only accelerate a product’s development, but also reduce its development costs?

“That’s where we come in,” Pipes said. “We at the university are training the people who will do that, and also developing the knowledge to do those things. The knowledge will come from the application of the digital technology to solve the unanswered questions in the manufacture of advanced composite systems. It’s a huge challenge to validate a digital twin. But using new manufacturing techniques and the integrated digital technologies at our disposal, we believe we can meet that challenge and cut the time to produce advanced composite products by 50%.”

The center, Pipes said, gives manufacturers a place to bring their technical challenges with advanced composites and receive the support they need to solve them. With the platform’s ability to maintain a complete digital thread of every project, Pipes said, “we can help people find the basic understanding of the ‘why’ and the ‘how.’”

EYES ON THE PRIZE

Hexcel, a leading producer of carbon-fiber reinforcements and resin systems, brought the center one of its first research challenges: developing a new thermoplastic composite that could help Hexcel expand into the market for Urban Air Mobility and Unmanned Aerial Systems, along with servicing existing commercial and defense aerospace platforms. The company aims to create a digital data set for its new composite, developing and documenting all of the information needed to design a structure using Hexcel materials, and then analyze the structure virtually.

“Being able to pre-qualify data for our new material system is critical to helping us move into new markets and expand in existing ones,” said Bob Yancey, Hexcel’s business development director. “By giving designers the ability to virtually try out new materials, material forms and manufacturing processes, we believe we can accelerate the innovation of new systems.”

“By giving designers the ability to virtually try out new materials, material forms and manufacturing processes, we believe we can accelerate the innovation of new systems.”

Bob Yancey,
Business Development Director, Hexcel

Thermoplastics comprise only a small percentage of the current composites market, so it offers tremendous market potential. “We want to be able to provide any customer who wants to use our new thermoplastic composites with digital data sets that allow them to virtually design the structure and develop the manufacturing process with confidence,” Yancey said

Projects like Hexcel’s already have Pipes focused on what needs to come next.

“My vision of success is getting all supply chain members actively engaged in this enterprise, and educating them in how to use digital technologies and the importance of the digital thread,” Pipes said. “The platform will be key to that opportunity.” 

Related resources

Subscribe

Register here to receive a monthly update on our newest content.