Partnership aims for thermoplastic solution

Project aims to develop a type of rapid-forming technology for thermoplastic composite materials used in aerospace and other sectors

A partnership including JCB and Airbus UK that will develop new, technologically advanced thermoplastic composite parts for use in the aerospace and transport industries is to be created in the West Midlands.

The £400,000 Advanced Composites Development project (ADCOMP) will establish new and optimal processes for the efficient and rapid formation of high-performance thermoplastic composites. It aims to develop a type of rapid-forming technology for thermoplastic composite materials that could be applied to two components, one from aerospace and one from the automotive sector, creating a technology suitable for automation.

The mechanical performance of the thermoplastic composite parts made in this way would then be tested, including some full-scale in-service mechanical testing. As a result, manufacturers would gain a better understanding of the micro-structure of the materials and would be able to quantify life-cycle costs and the sustainability of the technology. It is hoped that the resulting technologies could also have applications in the construction, rail and medical industries.

Representatives from Warwick Manufacturing Group and the University of Birmingham are planning to work closely with the project.

Thermoplastic composites are engineered materials made from two or more constituent materials with significantly different physical or chemical properties, which remain separate and distinct on a macroscopic level within the finished structure.

Composite materials have gained popularity in high-performance products that need to be lightweight, yet strong enough to take harsh loading conditions, such as those used in aerospace components, including tails, wings and fuselages.

The new Boeing 787 structure, including the wings and fuselage, is composed largely of composites, while carbon composite is a key material used in modern spacecraft parts ranging from heat shields to solar panels. Other uses include the creation of lightweight parts for Formula 1 vehicles and racing-boat hulls. ‘The processes developed will need to be capable of being automated, while still producing components of consistently high quality,’ explained Dr Roger Wise, technology group manager at the Advanced Materials and Processes Group within TWI, and who is also involved in ADCOMP.

‘Some components will be tested in-service. Parts reinforced with carbon fibre and glass fibre are being developed and must hit cost targets. In addition, emphasis is being placed on the sustainability of the processes to include recycling. The new technology being developed will benefit the end users, who will be able to manufacture or purchase high-quality composite parts at lower costs. Members of the supply chain will have new cost-effective processes for manufacturing with thermoplastic composites, which they will be able to exploit in many markets.’

The project is being funded by a £200,000 investment from regional-development agency Advantage West Midlands, which is also leading on the project, together with £200,000 from industry and the National Composites Network (NCN), a node of the Materials Knowledge Transfer Network, which is jointly funded by government and industry to support the UK composites industry and its supply chain.

‘Global growth in the use of thermoplastic composites in aerospace and other transport sectors is increasing by five per cent each year, so there is a real need to develop affordable and rapid forming methods to maximise the market potential,’ said Ivan Buckley, advanced materials strategy manager at Advantage West Midlands.

ADCOMP will provide support and advice to partners while looking for possible gaps in the current market that could be filled by new products.

The scheme is one of three advanced materials demonstrator projects funded by Advantage West Midlands to focus on structural composite materials and the creation of advanced materials centres of excellence.

The results of the work taking place there, including information on state-of-the-art technology and best-practice guides, will be promoted across the region as well as nationally through the National Composites Network (NCN) website. Manufacturers working within the sector will also gain the chance to attend local training seminars and workshops, allowing ADCOMP to identify companies with the capacity to diversify into new products and markets.

Running alongside the programme will be a parallel technology transfer programme provided by NCN that will allow companies’ specific needs to be met by the research taking place within the ADCOMP scheme.