Driving down costs: Technologies to follow in 2018

Cost drives most decisions about composites use, but most innovation now focuses beyond material cost.


A saying attributed to a senior executive at a German automaker goes, “In the end, the only technical parameter that matters is cost.” I won’t name the automaker or individual, but based on my experience, I agree. That’s why, although the initial cost is higher, commercial aircraft manufacturers use advanced composites to reduce much larger in-service operating and maintenance costs. And why automakers talk about “making the business case,” through parts consolidation, lower investment cost, and/or lower end-user cost due to better fuel efficiency. Composites are found in chemical plants, on oil rigs and, in marine structures because their corrosion resistance economically justifies their use. But it is not always easy to make the argument. As we’ve learned over and over, building bridges from composites is hard to justify on lifecycle analysis alone. Budget-sensitive government buyers are reluctant to pay the premium, even when structures would last two- to three-times longer than those of concrete and steel.

Cost, in some fashion, drives most decisions about the use of composites. As a result, much of the innovative effort in the composites industry today is focused in some way, whether explicitly stated or not, on reducing the initial cost, in-use cost or cost of recycling and reusing composite materials. Here are a handful of technical areas that I am watching in 2018 — areas that go beyond raw material cost reduction:

Modeling and simulation – In a world where the possible combinations of fibers, resins, fiber and resin contents, processing techniques and fiber orientations can number in the billions, advances in the analysis of process-induced microstructure will enable the prediction of virtual allowables, suitable for many industrial applications, including more accurate crash behavior. The linking of simulation tools throughout the manufacturing process is improving confidence in understanding end-to-end cause and effect. Validation of simulation over multiple scales, from laboratory to full parts, enables reductions in mass, hence costs.

Automated layup and consolidation of smaller parts – The aerospace industry has long focused on large tape and fiber placement machines for wingskins and fuselages. But each aircraft also has multitudes of clips, brackets, frames, stringers and other smaller components. Innovative companies, such as Orbital ATK (Clearfield, UT, US), have developed automated equipment for forming these components at much lower costs, and this technology is being quickly adopted. Simultaneously, many companies in Europe and the US are introducing quick laminating machines with relatively low material waste for small parts, aiming at both aerospace and the much larger automotive markets. Combined with ever-shortening forming/molding/curing times, reducing layup cycle time and material waste will drive down costs.

Hybrid molding – Selective reinforcement, using continuous fiber inserts in discontinuous structures, has been done for at least 15 years. Historically, small patches have been applied locally (e.g., atop a beam or near an attachment point) making up a small fraction of a part’s overall mass. But I am seeing examples where the continuous portion forms the majority of the surface area of a very light, strong hybrid structure, while discontinuous material forms bosses, ribs and the part periphery, minimizing secondary trimming and, thus, reducing costs. Further, no longer limited to thermoplastic injection overmolding, this hybrid technology is being adapted for thermoplastic and thermoset compression molding. 

Recycling – A rough estimate puts the portion of the total carbon fiber that winds up as landfill waste in the range of 30%. In the past several years, many technologies and associated companies have sprung up to deal with this growing quantity of manufacturing waste in advanced composites, dry and impregnated, cured and uncured. There are solutions emerging for molded scrap and end-of-life components. A growing supply of high-quality, recycled carbon fiber will reduce the cost of parts that can leverage discontinuous material forms, such as mats and molding compounds.

The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) – This is the technology that knits together the items above and leverages them further. Embedded process sensors tie into accurate simulation models to verify part quality, predict process “drift” and make adjustments on the fly. Vision equipment verifies ply count and orientation in layup, and validates fiber angles in preforms. Infrared cameras capture infusion and exotherm data on large vacuum-assisted RTM structures to verify proper flow and cure. Electronic prepreg tags determine whether there is sufficient outlife to use (or chop and reuse) material, and classify its pedigree for third-party recyclers.

Progress on each of these fronts in 2018 will continue to drive down costs and raise the value proposition of composites across multiple markets.

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