Technology turns gaffer-like plastic tape into rigid tubing

A new technology that turns a strip of gaffer-like plastic tape into a rigid tube has been developed by scientists at Lymington-based RolaTube.

Their eponymously named product — originally developed in response to a demand for a strong, portable, roll-up pole for deploying industrial sensors — can be used on the battlefield, in outer space and potentially across many other sectors.

The technology was developed using thermoplastic-reinforced composites and enables long, rigid structures such as tubes to be stored as compact, coiled bands.

Furthermore, the new tubes hold a stable and rigid shape in compression and expansion without the use of any external parts.

RolaTube claims it has achieved this by manipulating the structure of fibre-reinforced composite (FRC) tubes and sections, so that they can be rolled up with a minimal amount of force.

Andrew Daton-Lovett, RolaTube’s technical director, told The Engineer that finding the right materials was initially difficult but that it became clear that thermoplastic composites were ideally suited to the product and are easily recyclable.  

‘Working out production techniques has also been a challenge,’ he said. ‘Although making tubes in thermosetting composites was a mature technology, making slit tubes in thermoplastics had to be approached from the ground up. We were always clear that the product’s real home was in continuous “mass production” but first we had to work out how to make small numbers to get the product right. We are finally going to continuous volume manufacture and the initial test runs on the first volume rig were carried out successfully three weeks ago.’

RolaTube is working with Surrey University in an attempt to develop bi-reeled carbon-fibre solar arrays for spacecraft.

Dr Vaios Lappas, a scientist from Surrey University, said: ‘We’re aiming to create ultra-light deployable structures for space applications that could be used on spacecraft within two to three years.’

Similarly, RolaTube technology is currently being used by the Ministry of Defence as a mast for communication purposes.

A Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) spokesman told The Engineer that the DSTL has been assessing alternative uses for the technology and is considering ways it could provide a multi-role capability so that the burden on the dismounted soldier can be minimised.