Joined-up composites

Plans to build on the UK’s strength in composites technology include
the setting up of a national network to disseminate knowledge and link
research and development with industry.

Boeing has already attracted plenty of attention for its major use of composite materials on the 7E7 Dreamliner. The new aircraft is just one of a myriad big engineering projects that see composites as the answer to their needs, not least in terms of weight and energy efficiency.

The automotive industry is shifting the use of composites beyond Formula One and towards the mainstream. Two recent examples are their use in the Vauxhall VX220 and MG’s X-Power.

Composites is a growth industry for the UK. It is already well positioned in Europe in terms of high performance composites for sectors such as aerospace and defence, while a greater emphasis is being placed on applications in renewable energy and the increasing industrial use of the materials.

At the Farnborough airshow this summer the trade and industry secretary Patricia Hewitt unveiled details of a £30m National Composites Network (NCN) to disseminate lighter, stronger composites technologies for key industrial areas such as aerospace, automotive and other industries. The network is designed to redress weaknesses outlined in a recent Foresight report covering the sector.

The NCN management board will be made up of: TWI (formerly The Welding Institute); Airbus; GKN; the Composites Processing Association (CPA); motor research body MIRA; and the British Marine Federation (BMF).

Initially, there will be four UK regional centres, specialising in various aspects of the technology. GKN will open the first on the Isle of Wight with a focus on automated manufacture. Airbus will operate the south-west centre, focusing on large and technically advanced structures.

The centre in Wales at TWI will specialise in non-destructive testing technology, and the Yorkshire centre, run by University of Sheffield and Boeing (subject to bids being accepted) will concentrate on machining and joining.

The DTI is putting £4.75m into the NCN, the first component of a knowledge transfer network it will be launching over the next year or so as part of its technology programme announced in April. The UK’s various regional development agencies (RDAs), such as SEEDA (south east England) and SWRDA (south west) are putting in a total of £14m, with industry contributions making up the rest.

Dr. Debra Pullen, project manager of the NCN said that in some ways the new project is picking up where the Faraday network – a £2.5m initiative set up five years ago to bring together academia and industry – left off.

According to the initiative’s project plan, the NCN is being created to ‘pull together all the various pockets of UK composite expertise, fill some technology gaps and signpost and facilitate end user access to the most appropriate source of assistance’. This will enable the development of a national strategy for promoting the composites sector in the UK and abroad. One of the main objectives of the NCN is to establish links with existing research communities, including relevant Faraday networks, and work with EPSRC to influence future science spending in the composites field.

Pullen said: ‘We have a large technical transfer programme where we try particularly to engage with small and medium-sized companies. To provide help, advice and signposts to capabilities they didn’t know existed and try to put them in a good position to compete and maintain the composite supply chain.’

The network will be formally launched at the end of next month with funding scheduled for five years, although Pullen is confident this will be renewed indefinitely.

The technology transfer process at the heart of the network will take a number of forms. Initial contact will be through a helpdesk. Businesses can then access the NCN website which will be linked to the DTI materials portal, a new initiative which will work as a central database. The NCN will also hold a number of interactive technology workshops, where companies will work with trade associations and carry out technology audits and feasibility studies funded by the NCN.

‘What we are doing is linking with existing groups of networks and trade associations to see how NCN can pull them all together,’ said Pullen. This is quite a challenge since there are an estimated 1,000 companies that claim to work with composites. Pullen explained that because the companies sell integrated products, the materials are just one part of their industry. Cross-sector knowledge is therefore vital, she said.

Lack of awareness and understanding was one of the main findings of a Foresight report, which was produced by Dr Graham Sims of NPL for the DTI. The report offered an overview of the composites market within the UK. While Sims predicted the composites market will grow by 3.7 per cent a year to 2005, he claimed that a lack of trained staff, customer awareness and applied development were key drawbacks.

Pullen believes the network will hopefully address these failings. ‘One of the things the NCN is starting to do is map capabilities we have in the UK. It means we can identify gaps in the technology and therefore identify further funding,’ she said.

Phil Grainger, technical director of GKN Aerospace, explained that the company’s bid for a composite research centre had been in the pipeline for more than a year but had run into difficulties obtaining funding.

The UK group was consequently even considering alternative locations in US and Germany.

‘If you want to do research you can apply to the DTI, but it cannot involve capital. You can go to your RDA for capital, but they are not interested in what research you are doing, only how many jobs it will create,’ he said.

Grainger believes that to avoid losing the composites research efforts of companies such as GKN and Airbus to locations abroad, the DTI and RDAs created the NCN to get around the problem of providing funding for unique research facilities. ‘The NCN is a mechanism whereby within state aid rules it can receive funds from RDAs. Because it is a separately created company with its own members it can then re-dispense these funds,’ said Grainger.

GKN has located its Advanced Composites Facility (ACF) on the Isle of Wight because of its proximity to its existing facility on the island. The group invested £5m, with a further £3m from the NCN. The centre will initially have 20 engineers. Its goal will be to reduce the cost of carbon fibre composite structures by 30 per cent, develop a state-of-the-art facility for resin infusion technology and improve connectivity and efficiency in the GKN Aerospace supply chain.

The company said the centre would build on its existing composites work on major aerospace projects – for example, the wing spars for the Airbus A400M.

‘We are equally committed to creating a composite cluster on the Isle of Wight which will include other businesses, and we are very interested in the local supply base starting to understand the aerospace industry,’ Grainger said.

The ACF will be built in two stages, with 80 per cent completed by next March. The second phase incorporating the research division will open during spring 2006.

Grainger revealed that once NCN’s support was announced a number of smaller businesses approached GKN to establish whether the engineering group could carry out some research on their behalf – a key goal of the NCN.

GKN has in the past pursued composites projects that were never fully realised because of their unsuitability for aerospace on the ground of cost or technical characteristics. However, rather than having the products mothballed the NCN is keen to encourage that they be passed on to marine or automotive companies that might benefit from them.

‘At the moment a lot of companies understandably look after their own IP,’ said Grainger. ‘What we are hoping the NCN might do is become a sort of neutral interface to allow people to start to debate some of the things that are driving their companies forward.’

GKN has set itself a two-year programme in which it will be taking part in an EU initiative building spare parts and metallics for Airbus and Rolls-Royce, as well as its own internal composites — all under the NCN umbrella.

However, it does not necessarily mean that all research conducted will be available to other companies. ‘The NCN doesn’t control its vendors. There absolutely will be IP generated at the centre which will not be subject for discussion,’ said Grainger.

‘I think the network will contain an expert community that will rapidly help other businesses direct themselves to where answers might be, far more quickly than if they explored the market on their own,’ said Grainger. ‘And that is a two-way street.’

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