JEC Composites 2011: Show highlights

Skies outside were gray but the atmosphere inside was all sunshine at the 2011 JEC Composites Show in Paris. Held March 29-31 at the Paris Expo in Porte de Versailles, the event’s upbeat buzz reflected the current upward trend in the composites industry.

Skies outside were gray but the atmosphere inside was all sunshine at the 2011 JEC Composites Show in Paris. Held March 29-31 at the Paris Expo in Porte de Versailles, the event’s upbeat buzz reflected the current upward trend in the composites industry.

Carbon fiber manufacturer SGL Group (Wiesbaden, Germany), made a splash at this show a year ago when it announced its joint venture with BMW Group, SGL Automotive Carbon Fibers, was going to build a new carbon fiber manufacturing plant in Moses Lake, Wash., to produce material for the passenger cell of the forthcoming all-electric BMW i3 (dubbed Megacity Vehicle at the time). Since then, much has changed. Officials at this year’s show confirmed that the new facility in Washington State is on schedule for completion this summer, to be followed in the third quarter by commissioning of the lines and delivery of the first of the carbon fiber. The plant’s capacity will be 3,000 metric tonnes (6.613 million lb) per year of 50K standard-modulus carbon fiber.

The Moses Lake facility will be fed by polyacrylonitrile (PAN) precursor from a Mitsubishi/SGL joint venture in Japan. Finished 50K tow will leave Moses Lake and arrive in Wackersdorf, Germany, where it will be woven into noncrimp fabrics, which will then travel to Landshut, Germany, for stacking, preforming, stamping, resin transfer molding (RTM) and machining for the passenger cell.

Andreas Wüllner, managing director of SGL Automotive Carbon Fibers, says SGL already is testing the weaving technology to produce the noncrimp fabrics in Wackersdorf and is confident that the car, due on market in 2013, will remain on schedule. Indeed, SGL displayed in its booth a completed passenger cell (see photo) for the four-door BMW i3. It featured blue and white tape over the cell’s joints to hide some of the technology behind the cell. Look for similar technology in the just-announced hybrid-electric BMW i8, also due out in 2013. In fact, Wüllner says BMW is so committed to the use of carbon fiber composites in its cars that SGL Automotive Carbon Fibers is already planning to expand the Moses Lake plant.

Another attention-getting auto was the new, yet to be released Audi RS3, with carbon fiber fenders that were resin transfer molded by Sora Composites (Change, France), a first for Audi, says Sora. While fabrication details aren’t yet available, Sora says that the thin, complex parts require attention to the performing process to achieve Audi’s exacting standards.

Also in abundance were materials, equipment, tooling and process concepts, many of which included automation, for producing composites faster and more efficiently — and out of the autoclave. One of the winners of the JEC Innovation Awards competition was an aircraft seat back, developed by A&P Technology (Cincinnati, Ohio), Ticona (Florence, Ky.), TenCate Advanced Composites (Morgan Hill, Calif.) and processor Cutting Dynamics Inc. (CDI, Avon, Ohio). More than 18 months in development, it features a compression-molded pan that uses AS4 carbon fiber unidirectional tape from Hexcel (Stamford, Conn.). The tape is prepregged by TenCate, using Ticona’s Fortron PPS thermoplastic resin.

The rim of the seat, which provides structural support against torsional forces (consider the abuse a typical aircraft seat back endures), also comprises AS4 carbon fiber prepregged by TenCate, then split by A&P into strips 0.1875 inch/4.8 mm wide and braided into a biaxial tubular shape to provide noncrimping conformity around the edge of the seat back. The rim likely will be welded to the pan, says Mike Favarolo, technical marketing manager at Ticona, although CDI also is considering an adhesive. CDI molds the seat back in a cycle described as “minutes” long and expects to produce several thousand for a major aircraft manufacturer.

Another impressive out-of-autoclave concept was a composite aircraft door designed and produced by Latécoère (Toulouse, France) together with its European partners. The large and complex part with integral stiffening frames was made with a 3-D preform stitched together with a new 1K (two-ply) carbon fiber sewing thread developed by Schappe Technics (Blyes, France). The part materials, which included dry carbon and fiberglass and metallic mesh for lightning strike, was layed up in a complex multipart mold and infused, with assembly time reduced by 10 to 15 percent thanks to the preform and fewer steps required. The finished part is reportedly 10 to 15 percent lighter compared to current door designs.

Innovation award finalist Techni-modul Engineering (Coudes, France) showed a new concept for tools capable of out of autoclave, high-rate production of composites. The patented concept involves a thin skin, which can be either metallic or composite, integrally heated via fluid channels. The fluid can be oil, water or metallic-based. The company claims a very fast rate of tool heating and a high ultimate temperature (around 400°C/752°F) Because the tool is much less massive than a conventional counterpart, it can be handled and moved more easily and less power is consumed during part cure. The target market is out-of-autoclave processing and resin transfer molding. Equally buzz-worthy was the winner of the Equipment Category Innovation Award, a metal-surfaced composite tool produced by partners Advanced Composites Group Ltd. (ACG, Heanor, U.K.) and Integran (Toronto, Canada). The tool has a nanocrystalline, ferromagnetic cladding or tool face over a carbon fiber composite tool base, to take advantage of the best aspects of metallic tooling with the light weight and lower thermal mass of composite tooling.

Although the aerospace industry has been avidly considering the viability and future of out-of-autoclave (OOA) resins for structural aircraft applications, there was another “buzz” at the show that raised a question that will have to be answered further down the commercial aircraft road: How much will future aircraft (i.e., post-787 and post-A350 XWB) use thermoplastics in structural applications? Thermoplastics have already worked their way onto business jets, including the vertical tail rudder of the Gulfstream G650 (award winner at JEC 2010).

This year, Fokker Aerostructures B.V. (Hoogeveen, The Netherlands) displayed at its stand the bottom skin of the horizontal tail section of the G650. It’s currently molded of carbon fiber/epoxy, but the Fokker version is a demonstrator, made as part of an Airbus program, fabricated from carbon fiber/PEKK. Arnt Offringa, director R&D at Fokker, says his company will fabricate the top half of the tail section, bond the two halves together, and conduct structural testing to determine the thermoplastic’s suitability for the application. If successful, Offringa says the company hopes to see the technology on a future business jet. And if that’s successful, then perhaps a commercial aircraft.

Offringa also reports that the same Airbus effort is molding the lower half of an A320 forward fuselage section, using a similar carbon fiber/thermoplastic combination, stiffened by a rib system Fokker has developed. It will be years, says Offringa, before the industry knows where this research will lead, but agreed that it is “very interesting.”

New product and business announcements were everywhere, including Think Composites (Palo Alto, Calif. and Antony, France) press conference to announce its partnership with Chomarat (Le Cheylard, France). Think Composites’ principal Steven Tsai of Stanford University described the design concept of an unbalanced laminate, using only two ply angles, which can offer unexpected design benefits in a composite laminate, such as greater toughness and bend/twist coupling to control deflection. Porcher will produce the unusual reinforcement in dry form, or will work with prepregger partners to produce prepreg forms of the material, which Tsai believes can ultimately lead to better composite performance and less material waste in processing.

Assembly Guidance Systems Inc. (Chelmsford, Mass.) demonstrated its new ProjectorVision laser projection system designed to prevent foreign object debris from ruining a part. The machine vision system automatically detects any debris in the mold during the laser-guided layup process that does not match the program, and locks the system to prevent further progress until the debris is removed.

AGY Holdings LLC (Aiken, S.C.) introduced a completely new fiber at the show, designated S-3 HDI, for high-performance printed circuit boards (PCBs). Designed to meet the demanding technical requirements of high-density interconnect (HDI) issues, wherein increasing functionality is tightly packed within the increasingly cramped space of new devices, the new fiber offers a very high tensile modulus for better dimensional stability and less warpage, as well as a lower coefficient of thermal expansion (CTE) to withstand the higher temperatures of lead-free soldering during production.