Production auto composites: Progress on body panels and passenger cells

Acceptance and incorporation of composite materials into production automobiles and trucks is growing.

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Acceptance and incorporation of composite materials into production automobiles and trucks is growing. CT’s North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) report and two feature articles in this issue are cases in point. But beyond these headline events, and sometimes overshadowed by them, are no less important tales of progress. Here’s a sampling.

In the Middle East, Polmet Automotive Ltd. (Bursa, Turkey) says it is entering a new phase in its development of specialty composites for European markets. In a Feb. 14 announcement, the company reported that it had acquired five resin-injection systems, 10 hydraulic presses and two vacuum lines for the new effort. The equipment will be installed and made operational in a 2,500m2 (27,000 ft2) workspace at the company’s facilities.

According to Mahir Arpaci, Polmet’s product manager, the new products will include finished, gel-coated carbon fiber body parts: “Carbon fiber components and composites will strengthen our presence in international markets,” Arpaci contends.

Polmet has specialized in automotive and marine applications since it was founded in 1980, and it has a network of distributors throughout Europe. The firm employs about 25 skilled employees and sells its composites in more than 10 countries.

News of a new automotive initiative, the Lightweight Integrated Process Application (LIPA) project, came from the Georg Kaufmann Tech-Center AG (GK-Tech-Center, Busslingen, Switzerland). LIPA seeks to develop a process of forming and “back injecting” thermoplastic prepregs or commingled thermoplastic fabrics, which the group calls “organic sheets,” to produce fiber-reinforced lightweight thermoplastic components for eventual series production. The primary goal of the project is to develop and validate the manufacturing process for large-scale production by focusing on structural components and process control. Because the development work would be difficult for one company to handle alone, a multicompany consortium was envisioned. GK-Tech-Center joined forces with partners ASE Industrieautomation GmbH (Näfels, Switzerland), Kistler Instrumente AG (Winterthur, Switzerland), Krelus AG (Oberentfelden, Switzerland) and Quadrant Plastic Composites AG (Lenzburg, Switzerland). The consortium has constructed a specially designed flexible manufacturing cell at the new LIPA Development Center,
in Busslingen.

The composites process under development involves pressure preshaping of a flat, dry reinforcement in a closed mold before introducing the matrix. Organic sheet fabrics are placed in a tool, then formed upon tool closure, without damage, for local reinforcement. When the preshaping process is finished, an injection process begins, encapsulating the fabric as a stiffening element within the part. The problem, says LIPA, is that the process is not yet fast enough for a high-volume automotive production line. But the development partners have more than 20 years of experience in back-injection/pressing of flexible materials, such as textiles and thermoplastic sheets, says the group, and it intends the work to produce, eventually, a fast, coordinated process.

In addition to an injection molding machine with a clamp force of 4,200 kN, the project partners are equipped with an infrared heating station and a six-axis robot with a carrying weight capacity of 90 kg/200 lb. Depending on the respective development effort, the manufacturing cell can be modified and expanded as needed. Further, the molding equipment is fitted with extensive sensor technology that tracks all the relevant process parameters. As a “nonindustry-specific facility,” the LIPA Center is available to interested processors, users and material manufacturers for testing and development initiatives. The LIPA project is supported by KraussMaffei Technologies GmbH (Munich, Germany), Kuka Roboter GmbH (Augsburg, Germany) and the Institute of Lightweight Engineering and Polymer Technology (ILK) of the Technical University of Dresden.

In the U.S., Cannon USA (Cranberry Township, N.J.) reports that it has developed a work cell for the manufacture of carbon fiber/epoxy automotive parts at relatively high production volumes. Craig Woolheater, product manager at Cannon, says the cell is already used in Europe to manufacture the passenger cage of a 2013 passenger vehicle. The cell focuses on the robotic dispensation of epoxy resin onto a dry carbon fiber fabric. The combined fabric and resin are then cured in a heated 1,000-ton press. Woolheater claims the system offers a five-minute part-to-part cycle time, with minimal labor interaction and high levels of automation.