In Machinery's March aerospace supplement, we highlighted that the UK's National Composites Centre (www.nationalcompositescentre.co.uk), in Bristol, will be opening later this year and that it is now the central co-ordinating body for the UK's composites focused efforts.
In this role, it will link together all the other various composites activities underway at numerous locations throughout the UK. The latest addition to this effort is the one in Northern Ireland – Northern Ireland Advanced Composites and Engineering Centre, which is scheduled to open this autumn.
Located in Belfast, the 3,700 m2 £6 million facility is co-owned and operated by Queen's University Belfast and the University of Ulster. Finance for the operation comes from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills' Strategic Investment Fund, Invest NI and Bombardier Aerospace. Speaking at the event, the Belfast Telegraph reported that Northern Ireland's Enterprise Minister, Arlene Foster, said: "This flagship centre will become the focal point for advanced materials, as well as engineering research and development in Northern Ireland. In particular, it will enable the advancement of composites technology across a range of industrial sectors."
From the industry side, Michael Ryan, vice-president and general manager at Bombardier Aerospace Belfast, is reported to have said: "This industry-led technology centre will not only help us to further develop our own R&D activities and those of our local aerospace supply chain, but it will enable Northern Ireland's high value engineering and manufacturing sector to develop its capabilities, move up the value chain and compete on a global stage."
In fact, Bombardier has only just itself opened a new composites facility, the first phase of construction of a 55,742 m2 facility in Belfast that will house the manufacture and assembly of composite wings for the Bombardier CSeries – a new plane in the 100-149 seat single aisle segment, due to enter service in 2013.
Image: Bombardier's new cutting room
The first phase of the new building incorporates a production area, a low contamination clean room area and an area for tool storage. The main equipment, including a fabric cutter, multiple-axis machine cell, pre-formers and autoclave, is being installed and commissioned in preparation for production of the CSeries aircraft wings, which is due to begin this year.
The facility is part of a £520 million investment by Bombardier in its Northern Ireland operation. As part of the wing research and development program, Bombardier's Belfast operation has developed an innovative Resin Transfer Infusion (RTI) technology to manufacture the large one-piece wing skins and structural spars for the wing torque box.
Several local Northern Ireland companies have been engaged in the production of the demonstrator wing, in addition to the local firms involved in the design, construction and equipping of the new wing facility. Northern Ireland engineering and manufacturing companies will also have an opportunity to bid for work packages on the wing production in the coming months. The UK's efforts in the composites area are still clearly ramping up.
In terms of production technology, much development that Machinery sees relates to cutting tools. But, at a higher level, news from Germany and Japan highlights how the manufacture, as opposed to machining, of composite parts is being pushed forward.
Athough much of the drive for composites is aerospace-led, the automotive market is also an interested party, with automotive sector press specialist Schuler (01922 619100) reporting progress in productionising carbon fibre reinforced composite plastics (CFRP) manufacture. At the company's INFORM live event, held in February, Schuler Group unveiled its latest generation of hydraulic presses, tailored to the processing of CFRPs via Resin Transfer Moulding (RTM).
Schuler SMG has been developing and producing composites presses for the RTM process since 1998, in fact, but the process was regarded as too complicated, says Schuler. However, RTM is enjoying something of a renaissance, as modern presses have made it much simpler to handle, it is claimed. The key benefit of the method used by Schuler, and demonstrated on a 3,600 tonne hydraulic press, is that it enables the manufacture of large parts with especially complex shapes via a production process.
In the case of Schuler's RTM presses, the pre-formed part, made from CFRP mats, is inserted into the lower die; the upper die is lowered, enclosing the part in a hermetically sealed space; the pre-formed shape fits the die exactly, so there's no further forming; resin is injected into the vacuum between the press dies; the resin is then hardened by heating it to 100 °C. After this stage, the part requires a few finishing processes, prior to spraying.
Image: Mass production of large composites parts from Schuler
MASS PRODUCTION MOVE
More recently, news from Japan also underscores yet more interest – automotive and wider. Japanese textile maker Teijin claims to have successfully developed what it says is the world's first mass production technology for carbon fibre-reinforced plastics for use in cars. By cutting the cycle time for moulding car frame composites to less than a minute, the company says it has overcome one of the biggest challenges in the industry, as regards mass production.
Teijin's new technologies include intermediate materials made of thermoplastic resin, instead of conventional thermosetting resin for moulding use CFRP. By impregnating carbon fibre with thermoplastic resin, the company developed three intermediate materials for the production of CFRP suited for use in mass-production vehicles. The materials can be used selectively, depending on the required strength and cost of the part, and they can be made with various thermoplastic resins, including polypropylene and polyamide. The Japanese firm has also developed new technologies for welding thermoplastic CFRP parts together and for bonding them with other materials such as steel, which will help to reduce the use of metal in manufacturing processes.
Image: Mass production of car parts
Teijin says it intends to develop mass production applications for CFRP in automotive and other fields that require certain levels of structural strength, such as machine tools and industrial robots. To return to aerospace, however, and the use of composites in jet engines, still young, has taken a further step forward with General Electric and Snecma having just announced that they are looking at using composite materials for the Leap-X engine's fan blades and fan case, drawing on GE's larger GEnx design. Leap-X is the launch engine for China's COMAC's 168-190 seat C919 single aisle plane and is also a candidate for the Airbus A320neo design: a re-engined A320 family.
By moving from metal to composite blades, the current design of the 18-blade Leap-X fan reduces in weight by about 76 kg. A broader head of steam is clearly gathering behind composites.