Fiber reinforcement forms

Fibers used to reinforce composites are supplied directly by fiber manufacturers and indirectly by converters in a number of different forms, which vary depending on the application.

Fibers used to reinforce composites are supplied directly by fiber manufacturers and indirectly by converters in a number of different forms, which vary depending on the application.

Roving and tow. Roving is the simplest and most common form of glass. It can be chopped, woven or otherwise processed to create secondary fiber forms for composite manufacturing, such as mats, woven fabrics, braids, knitted fabrics and hybrid fabrics. Rovings are supplied by weight, with a specified filament diameter. The term yield is commonly used to indicate the number of yards in each pound of glass fiber rovings. Similarly, tow is the basic form of carbon fiber. Typical aerospace-grade tow size ranges from 1K to 24K. PAN- and pitch-based 12K carbon fibers are available with a moderate (33 to 35 Msi), intermediate (40 to 50 Msi), high (50 to 70 Msi) and ultrahigh (70 to 140 Msi) modulus. (Modulus is the mathematical value that describes the stiffness of a material by measuring its deflection or change in length under loading.) Newer heavy-tow carbon fibers, sometimes referred to as commercial-grade fibers, with filament counts from 48K to 320K, are available at a lower cost than aerospace-grade fibers. They typically have a 33- to 35-Msi modulus and 550-ksi tensile strength and are used when fast part build-up is required, most commonly in recreational, industrial, construction and automotive markets. Heavy-tow fibers exhibit properties that approach those of aerospace-grade fibers but can be manufactured at a lower cost because of precursor and processing differences. (Carbon fiber's high cost and historically significant fluctuations in its supply and demand, generate perennially high interest in the composites industry about the state of the global carbon fiber market, a subject treated in "Supply and demand: Advanced fibers," under "Editor's Picks," at right.)

A potentially significant recent variation is carbon fiber tow that features aligned discontinuous fibers. These tows are created in special processes that either apply tension to carbon tow at differential speeds, which causes random breakage of individual filaments, or otherwise cut or separate individual carbon filaments such that the filament beginnings and ends are staggered and their relative lengths are roughly uniform so that they remain aligned and the tow maintains its integrity. The breaks permit the filaments to shift position in relation to adjacent filaments with greater independence, making the tow more formable and giving it the ability to stretch under load, with greater strength properties than chopped, random fibers. Fiber forms made from aligned discontinuous tows (see “Mats,” below) are more drapable; that is, they are more pliable and, therefore, conform more easily to curved tool surfaces than fiber forms made from standard tow (see “Aligned discontinuous fibers come of age,” under "Editor's Picks").

Mats are nonwoven fabrics made from fibers that are held together by a chemical binder. They come in two distinct forms: chopped and continuous strand. Chopped mats contain randomly distributed fibers cut to lengths that typically range from 38 mm to 63.5 mm (1.5 to 2.5 inches). Continuous-strand mat is formed from swirls of continuous fiber strands. Because their fibers are randomly oriented, mats are isotropic — they possess equal strength in all directions. Chopped-strand mats provide low-cost reinforcement primarily in hand layup, continuous laminating and some closed-molding applications. Inherently stronger continuous-strand mat is used primarily in compression molding, resin transfer molding and pultrusion applications and in the fabrication of preforms and stampable thermoplastics. Certain continuous-strand mats used for pultrusion and needled mats used for sheet molding eliminate the need for creel storage and chopping.

Woven fabrics are made on looms in a variety of weights, weaves and widths. Wovens are bidirectional, providing good strength in the directions of yarn or roving axial orientation (0º/90º), and they facilitate fast composite fabrication. However, the tensile strength of woven fabrics is compromised to some degree because fibers are crimped as they pass over and under one another during the weaving process. Under tensile loading, these fibers tend to straighten, causing stress within the matrix system.

Several different types of weaving are used for bidirectional fabrics. In a plain weave, each fill yarn (i.e., yarn oriented at right angles to the fabric length) alternately crosses over and under each warp yarn (the lengthwise yarn). Other weaves, such as harness, satin and basket weave, allow the yarn or roving to cross over and under multiple warp fibers (e.g., over two, under two). These weaves tend to be more drapable than do plain weaves.

Woven roving is relatively thick and used for heavy reinforcement, especially in hand layup operations and tooling applications. Due to its relatively coarse weave, woven roving wets out quickly and is relatively inexpensive. Exceptionally fine woven fiberglass fabrics, however, can be produced for applications such as reinforced printed circuit boards.

Hybrid fabrics can be constructed with varying fiber types, strand compositions and fabric types. For example, high-strength strands of S-glass or small-diameter filaments may be used in the warp direction, while less-costly strands compose the fill. A hybrid also can be created by stitching woven fabric and nonwoven mat together.

Multiaxials are nonwoven fabrics made with unidirectional fiber layers stacked in different orientations and held together by through-the-thickness stitching, knitting or a chemical binder. The proportion of yarn in any direction can be selected at will. In multiaxial fabrics, the fiber crimp associated with woven fabrics is avoided because the fibers lie on top of each other, rather than crossing over and under. This makes better use of the fibers’ inherent strength and creates a fabric that is more pliable than a woven fabric of similar weight. Super-heavyweight nonwovens are available (up to 200 oz/yd²) and can significantly reduce the number of plies required for a layup, making fabrication more cost-effective, especially for large industrial structures. High interest in noncrimp multiaxials has spurred considerable growth in this reinforcement category. A new style of multiaxial reinforcement, developed by Dr. Stephen Tsai of Stanford University together with Chomarat (Le Cheylard, France), was introduced in 2011 that orients fibers at very shallow angles, such as 0/20°, that can replace quasi-isotropic fiber orientations for better performance and lower weight.

Braided fabrics are continuously woven on the bias and have at least one axial yarn that is not crimped in the weaving process. The braid’s strength comes from intertwining three or more yarns without twisting any two yarns around each other. This unique architecture offers, typically, greater strength-to-weight than wovens. It also has natural conformability, which makes braid especially suited for production of sleeves and preforms (see “Preforms,” below) because it readily accepts the shape of the part that it is reinforcing, thereby obviating the need for cutting, stitching or manipulation of fiber placement. Braids also are available in flat fabric form. These can be produced with a triaxial architecture, with fibers oriented at 0°, +60°, -60° within one layer. This quasi-isotropic architecture within a single layer of braided fabric can eliminate problems associated with the layering of multiple 0˚, +45˚, -45˚ and 90˚ fabrics. Furthermore, the propensity for delamination (layers of fiber separating) is reduced dramatically with quasi-isotropic braided fabric. Its 0°, +60°, -60° architecture gives the fabric the same mechanical properties in every direction, so the possibility for a mismatch in stiffness between layers is eliminated. 

In both sleeve and flat fabric form, the fibers are continuous and mechanically interlocked. Because all the fibers in the structure are involved in a loading event, the load is evenly distributed throughout the structure. Therefore, braid can absorb a great deal of energy as it fails. Braid’s impact resistance, damage tolerance and fatigue performance have attracted composite manufacturers in a variety of applications, ranging from hockey sticks to jet engine fan cases. 

Preforms are near-net shape reinforcement forms designed for use in the manufacture of particular parts by stacking and shaping layers of chopped, unidirectional, woven, stitched and/or braided fiber into a predetermined three-dimensional form. Complex part shapes can be approximated closely by careful selection and integration of any number of reinforcement layers in varying shapes and orientations. Because of their potential for great processing efficiency and speed, a number of preforming technologies have been developed, with the aid of special binders, heating and consolidation methods and the use of automated methods for spray up, orientation and compaction of chopped fibers.

Resin-impregnated fiber forms, commonly called prepregs, are manufactured by impregnating fibers with a controlled amount of resin (thermoset or thermoplastic), using solvent, hot-melt or powder-impregnation technologies. Prepregs can be stored in “B-stage,” or partially cured state, until they are needed for fabrication. Prepreg tape or fabric is used in hand layup, automated tape laying, fiber placement and in some filament winding operations (see the corresponding headings in the “Fabrication methods” segment, listed under "Editor's Picks," at right). Unidirectional tape (all fibers parallel) is the most common prepreg form. Prepregs made with woven fibers and other flat goods offer reinforcement in two dimensions and are typically sold in full rolls, although small quantities are available from some suppliers. Those made by impregnating fiber preforms and braids provide three-dimensional reinforcement.

Prepregs deliver a consistent fiber/resin combination and ensure complete wetout. They also eliminate the need to weigh and mix resin and catalyst for wet layup. For most thermoset prepregs, drape and tack are “processed in” for easy handling, but they must be stored below room temperature and have out-time limitations; that is, they must be used within a certain time period after removal from storage to avoid premature cure reaction. Thermoplastic prepregs do not suffer from such limitations, but without special formulation, they lack the tack or drape of thermoset prepregs and, therefore, are more difficult to form.

Editor's note: To continue reading the SOURCEBOOK's "Industry Overview, Part I," return to the SB main menu or click on "The matrix," under "Editor's Picks."

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The matrix

The matrix material binds the fiber reinforcement, gives the composite component its shape and determines the quality of its surface. A matrix can be polymeric, ceramic or metallic. Polymer matrices are the most widely used for composites in commercial and high-performance aerospace applications.