Composites 2018: A multitude of markets

The composites industry, in general, continued to show health and growth, powered particularly by its aerospace, automotive and wind energy sectors.

The composites industry, in general, continued to show health and growth, powered particularly by its aerospace, automotive and wind energy sectors. But in 2016 and 2017, the marine segment regained much of its former strength as well. The big news, in the 2015-2016 period was a steep incline in mergers and acquisitions (M&A) activity. That activity continued (Airbus and Bombardier announced a surprising partnership agreement late in 2017, for example), but the M&A activity was somewhat overshadowed by the talk, and the groundswell of action that accompanied it, in preparation for what has been proclaimed the Fourth Industrial Revolution. In this revolution, integrated, intelligent cyber-physical systems — built around sensor-equipped manufacturing machines — are connected to the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and are, therefore, able to autonomously manufacture digitally designed products, maintain their quality and perform activities along the entire value chain. Deloitte University Press (Sniderman, Mahto and Cotteleer, Feb. 22, 2016) calls it “the marriage of advanced manufacturing techniques with information technology, data and analytics.” Tech guru Chandrakant Patel of HP Labs (Palo Alto, CA, US) has been quoted as saying, “We are operating at the intersection of machine learning, data management and domain knowledge.” 

There are several ways to refer to this trend, or aspects of it: Europeans refer to it as Industry (or Industrie) 4.0, but it is also variously known as the IIoT, digital enterprise, and digital thread. And in the US, the nonprofit initiative Smart Manufacturing Leadership Coalition (SMLC, Los Angeles, CA, US) calls it smart manufacturing

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In Industry 4.0 production facilities, not only will the full part design be digitized, but the manufacturing process also must be fully modeled digitally and understood as well, before turning on a single machine. This manufacturing digital model is termed the digital twin

The digital, or some say virtual, twin is a three-dimensional model and associated (and extremely elaborate) product data structure created to simulate the entire manufacturing process, says John O’Connor, the director of product and market strategy at Siemens PLM Software (Plano, TX, US). This virtual representation “fully describes” everything involved with making the component — it is a faithful digital replica of the part and all the physical assets necessary for its manufacture. And that digital twin defines exactly how those details of the part design — ply layup, tolerances, orientations, etc. — will be executed by the manufacturing machines, down to the smallest detail. Further, the software and machines will be so closely linked by sensors and immediate closed-loop feedback that during production, a 4.0 system will be able to troubleshoot its process and even make corrections as it goes. In short, industry is teaching machines to think. And its proponents are talking about a near-zero defect production process as a practically attainable goal.

Industry 4.0 isn’t a “coming trend” or a theoretical concept, either. It’s here, it’s real and is already having an impact in factories around the globe. Industry 4.0 is trending in the composites industry, but more so in Europe than North America or Asia, particularly in plants that supply the aerospace and automotive industries.

Many in the composites industry, however, have been slow to get on board. One reason is that composites are more challenging than other industries in terms of data collection and management. “There are a lot of inherent complexities in composites fabrication,” says Dale Brosius, chief commercialization officer for the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation (IACMI, Knoxville, TN, US). The wide range and potential combinations of fibers and thermoset and thermoplastic raw materials; multiple tools and molds; energy-intensive autoclaves and ovens; and the extensive documentation requirements in some sectors seriously complicate every aspect of design and manufacture. “But that means the composites industry has more to gain from smart manufacturing deployment than many other ‘simpler’ industries,” says Brosius.

In 2017, the trend toward electric drive in the auto industry and in boatbuilding — driven, of course, by concern for the environment — is bringing both markets full circle. Those with long memories and/or a good grasp of history will recall that both the auto and the powerboat had a strong strain of electric-powered models in their early years. That they were supplanted by fossil-fuel powered engines was a later development. In 2017, both industries are showing signs that electric-powered vehicles are in the ascendency, and that composites, particularly those reinforced with carbon fibers, will be indispensable to their implementation.

And a perennial advantage that composites bring to manufacturers in any market, corrosion-resistance, is still driving the spread of composites adoption in a range of industries, particularly in so-called First World countries where once impressive infrastructure, of concrete, wood and steel, is deteriorating at a alarming rate. The annual cost of metallic corrosion alone, worldwide, is staggering. Considering the cost of maintenance, prevention, replacement of parts and interruption of services due to maintenance, the World Corrosion Organization (New York, NY, US) says that the annual cost of corrosion worldwide is US$2.2 trillion, more than 3% of the world’s gross domestic product (GDP). The US Department of Defense has estimated the annual cost of corrosion in military applications alone at more than US$10 billion per year.

Composites inherent resistance to corrosive impacts of water, salt, chemicals and the like make them attractive options in the marine world, and make them suitable replacements for metal structures that are exposed outdoors (tanks, piping, cooling towers, railcars for chemical transport and much more) or buried underground.

No less significant a story is that of the need for, and the quest to provide, the means to recycle scrap composite materials, outdated prepregs and the manufactured components themselves as they reach the end of their service lives. End-of-life regulations in the European Union, granted, an extreme example, already require that 95% of automobiles manufactured in Europe be recyclable. But the dye is cast. Recycling efforts in the past decade have sprung up and a handful are flourishing, but recyclers complained, as 2017 dawned, that the technologies are there, but the customers for the recycled materials have yet to step forward.


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