Project delivers high value out-of-autoclave manufacturing

Composite components could become more cost-effective and quicker to manufacture following an R&D project underway in Scotland.

Curing composites

The initiative – which involves Spirit AeroSystems working in collaboration with Strathclyde University, and supported by CENSIS, the Scottish Innovation Centre for Sensor and Imaging Systems – replaces the traditional autoclave “curing” process with what is described as ‘an intelligent and tailored heating tool’.

Autoclave vessels process materials in a mould at high pressures and temperatures. They typically cure high-performance components, placing the part in a vacuum within an autoclave and then applying a combination of pressure and heat during a pre-determined cycle – typically two hours at the cure temperature. The result is a high-strength, lightweight component for use in high-value manufacturing sectors.

Parts are normally cured for a standard period of time, at a set temperature, regardless of how they are responding to the curing process.

The consortium in Prestwick said it has improved on this by creating a tool that removes the need for an autoclave, which typically represents around $4m in upfront capital expenditure, while allowing users to monitor and match a cure cycle to a component’s geometric characteristics and how it is reacting to the process.

As well as creating a unique curing process, the partners said they have developed an entirely new capability in the UK for a number of supply chains.

Depending on a component’s geometry, the project could reduce operating costs by as much as half. through reduced CAPEX, factory space and energy consumption, while cutting cycle times by up to 40 per cent.

Christos Tachtatzis, Lecturer – Principal Investigator from Stratchclyde University’s Department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering, commented: “This initiative is about bringing engineering solutions to industrial challenges: tracking of the progression of the curing process during the manufacture of high-value components is a big gap in manufacturers’ knowledge.

“The consortium has developed a multi-zone heated tool with advanced control of the curing for individual parts, allowing for geometry-driven cure cycles and better decision making. The optimisation of the composite curing process has been a long-term goal for a range of industries and this solution has the potential to revolutionise the sector.”

Support for the project included £50,000 in funding from CENSIS.