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Composite Materials Prepare for Takeoff

Pioneering mass production of composites for cars and planes


With DDF, we want to support the large-scale adoption of composite materials to help automotive and aerospace OEMs face higher build rates and cost pressure. -Rich Hollis, Applications Engineering Operations Lead, Composite Materials, Solvay

The automotive and aerospace industries are ready ramp up their production of composite parts, and Solvay has the material and technology to help them achieve that – namely fast-cure prepregs and Double Diaphragm Forming (DDF). The Group’s Composite Materials team in the UK is showing them how it can be done, pioneering the way in the industrialisation of cost-effective composite parts.

Composite materials are set to represent an increasingly important proportion of what vehicles of all sorts are made of, as the trend towards emissions reduction through lightweighting is only going to accelerate. Certain niche markets like high-end automobiles and an increasing number of aircraft parts have already started paving the way towards replacing metal with composites for specific applications, but there are two major roadblocks keeping composites from moving into mass production: cost and complexity.

The fact is, making a part from composite materials is currently “an essentially manual process, which is fine for low volumes,” explains Rich Hollis,  Applications Engineering Operations Lead at Solvay’s Composite Materials facility in Heanor, England. “But we want to support the large-scale adoption of composite materials to help automotive and aerospace OEMs face higher build rates and cost pressure.” In effect, Solvay is actively anticipating market demand for increased manufacturing volumes of composite parts.

A unique solution to automate composite manufacturing

The answer of course is the automation of production lines. But that’s easier said than done. Because of their tack (stickiness), composites are tricky to manipulate for assembly robots. Moreover, a series of other issues such as debris on the parts and the pre-treating and cleaning of tools mean the process remains a slow and expensive one, with many crucial steps necessarily carried out by hand, as Rich mentions.

But over the past few years, Solvay has been working on a solution to these problems: Double Diaphragm Forming (DDF). Combined with the chemistry of the composites that enables fast curing, this allows the automation of the entire process, thus significantly accelerating cycle time and reducing costs.

In fact, with DDF, the production time for a single piece, from raw material to finished and ready-to-use part, is brought down to three minutes, which amounts to over 100,000 parts per year, thanks to continuous production as the robots can work simultaneously. These are the sorts of figures that can open the way for the industrialization of composite part manufacturing. “DDF is a Solvay technology that was already used commercially by BMW a few years ago,” explains Rich, “and we’ve seen a lot of interest over the last 12 months from OEMs in the automotive sector initially, but aerospace is definitely interested in applying new technologies and best practices to increase their build rates as well.”

A homemade proof of manufacturing concept

But coming up with great technologies is only useful if customers adopt them. And with long-established manufacturing practices using time-tested technologies, change can take time. Rich and his team therefore took matters into their own hands to explain to potential customers what DDF could do for them. “The feedback we got is that customers liked the technology but had a hard time imagining what the line may look like, so we took on the challenge of creating our own in order to show them,” he says. “The whole thing was designed and built by our team. We took a concept and turned it into reality.”

What they did is put together a fully automated composite production line at Solvay’s facility in Heanor, England by repurposing existing machines (three robots and a molding press). That being said, it remains a demonstration line: Solvay has no intention of moving into part manufacturing.

On 16 January, 150 Solvay customers and partners from around the world – tier ones, OEMs, but also equipment manufacturers that can provide the machines to create the new production lines – were invited to Heanor to see for themselves. “We wanted to show them the art of what is possible,” continues Rich. “This production line is here to help us de-risk and validate the applicability of DDF technology for their specific needs.” By adopting Solvay’s technology and materials, these customers are all set to take the adoption of composites to the next step.

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