Umeco developing high-speed process for automotive composites

Umeco's process uses robotics and press forming to produce automotive composite parts quickly. The company is working on a snap-cure (3 to 4 minutes) thermoset that is expected to be market-ready within two years. Umeco also is assessing thermoplastics.

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Umeco (Heanor, U.K.), in a plant tour with CompositesWorld on March 29, reported that it is in the process of developing an automated manufacturing system for the high-volume production of automotive structures and components.

The system consists of carbon fiber/epoxy prepreg formats that are first cut and kitted on a cutting table; cut prepregs are removed by a multi-axis ABB robot, which places it on a work table. The work table is then transferred to a another ABB robot beside a forming press; this robot removes the prepreg from the table, removes any backing paper, positions the prepreg on a pre-forming tool and then loads this into a Wickert (Landau in der Pfalz, Germany) compression molding machine for processing. The automated system can handle all types of prepreg material but is also focused on using Umeco’s Dform products, which greatly reduce the number of ply templates required in a lay-up through very high levels of conformability.

Nigel Blatherwick, strategic marketing director at Umeco, says initial development efforts have been promising, and Umeco has now embarked on a two-year collaborative program to fine-tune and optimize the process further. Ultimately, he says, he expects Umeco will develop and market a range of prepreg and Dform materials that will snap-cure in 3 to 4 minutes in a press-forming process, which puts the whole system in line with automotive production volume requirements.

Further, he expects Umeco will more tightly integrate the two robotic systems, eliminate backing paper on the prepreg, better characterize deformation and mechanical properties and have in place recycling options. Blatherwick notes that the automation alone at the forming press reduced the time to load and prep the fabric by 75 percent compared to the manual process Umeco used previously. Blatherwick also notes that Umeco is assessing use of thermoplastic as well as thermoset resins in the press-forming process.

Umeco is rebranding its facilities globally, segregating business according to its place in the composites industry supply chain. The companies that comprise Umeco (Heanor, U.K.), including Richmond Aerovac, J.D. Lincoln, Advanced Composites Group (ACG) and GRPMS, will all assume the Umeco name and then fall under one of several business groups: Distribution, Tooling, Structural Materials and Process Materials. Within Structural Materials, a High Volume Technologies unit has recently been established to increase the company’s focus on materials and process technology for mass production applications such as automotive.  

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