Maximising success in UK composites

Materials World magazine
27 Nov 2019

The UK composites market is estimated to reach a value of £12.5bln by 2030, but this would require several fundamental changes. NPL Principal Research Scientist in the Advanced Materials Characterisation Group, Dr Stefanos Giannis FIMMM, talks to Ceri Jones about how to capitalise on this potential.

Could you give us some background into the state of the UK composites market and what led to the recent NPL report?

This UK composites market opportunity was clearly articulated in the 2016 UK Composites Strategy, which was published by the Composites Leadership Forum. Following consultation on a wide cross-sector basis and analysis, the strategic focus was placed on eight primary industry sectors. It was shown that the UK has the opportunity to grow its composite product market to £12.5bln by 2030. NPL led work to define the strategic recommendations on the regulations, codes and standards of that document.

You mentioned gaps in the framework regarding regulations, codes and standards. Could you elaborate on that?

The collective evidence spans from the composite’s technology roadmapping – a predecessor to the 2016 UK Commercial Strategy – and to last year’s assessment of barriers to and opportunities for the uptake of composites work by NPL. The initial work led to an explicit statement in the UK Composites Strategy, which said that in some cases regulations, codes and standards name materials other than composites, therefore hindering their uptake by industry despite their strengths and benefits in many cases. We have sat on this statement for a while, as a composites community, but since 2016, there was a lot of focused work by the University of Southampton, UK, by NPL, as well as the Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI). All of these provided more evidence to show that the regulatory framework needs further attention. This is so we can boost the uptake of composites by industry, especially by small companies that want to design and commercialise new products in a competitive landscape. So that’s the background leading to this year, where NPL organised, on behalf of the Composites Leadership Forum, a deep dive workshop in March 2019.

Here, industry participants from aerospace, automotive, defence, energy, marine and infrastructure sectors were asked to provide specific input on the gaps in the regulatory framework covering their sector. That led us to write the report and recommend certain actions for the UK composites community. This was done in parallel to a study that Composites UK conducted for British Standards Institution and focused on the transport sectors, with an encouraging number of similar findings on specific standardisation needs.

Why do you think there is a lack of clarity over composites specifically?

Regulations sit at the very top of the regulatory framework, and they are normally legal documents that specify performance and safety requirements that, for example, products need to satisfy. So it is all coming down to defining the appropriate reference documents in the form of codes of practice, guides, specifications, standard test methods, etc. which enable us to address the regulations for each particular sector and empower usage of new materials like composites. We need to look at creating new or transforming existing reference documents into accepted performance-based standards. By performance-based, I mean documents that explicitly or implicitly permit the use of any material, as long as it achieves the desired level of performance and safety required for the application. That performance-based approach is not something that has been consistently used across industry sectors, and when new materials come into the field, they normally do not fit into the framework. This is the challenge.

Can you talk through some of the key recommendations in the NPL report?

There are basically three recommendations. What we found by analysing all the information from the previous studies and the input from the workshop participants was we need to accelerate the standardisation in the form of reference documents. These can be specifications, codes of practice and guides, as well as standard test methods and new technical notes. Not only do we need to produce more of these reference documents, but we need to produce them across specific areas highlighted in the report and raised by the workshop participants as key areas. This is to enable their organisations and industry sectors to increase the uptake of composite materials in product design.

The second recommendation is about navigating this regulatory infrastructure. One of the issues we found by talking to people in several industry sectors is that sometimes they are not aware that some of these codes and standards even exist, that there are published, widely accepted reference documents that could enable them to approve new composite products.

What we recommend is to bring the key stakeholders together, of both industry and regulators, and map that regulatory infrastructure, providing a clear link between the regulations and the codes, specifications and standards that enable the supply chain to address them. We believe that by creating an accurate map of the approval process for each industry sector, we can then present it in the form of a digital tool, something easy to navigate. Long-term, this should be coupled with a robust mentoring scheme to help companies navigate through the maze of product approval processes.

And the third recommendation is about establishing an advanced materials assurance centre. A focal point that would make sure that all the acceleration in the standardisation activities happens and that the navigating tool and mentoring scheme are continuously developed, maintained and promoted.

At the top of all this, the materials assurance centre can take the lead on specifying and qualifying composite materials for use while making traceable, assured materials data available in a searchable form across industry sectors.

These three points would have a period of implementation but through initiating smaller programmes of work that address these high-level recommendations, I think we can have an immediate impact for the benefit of the UK composites industry.

So what are the limitations to implementing change?

The funding mechanism is important to establishing an advanced materials assurance centre, possibly following a hub-and-spoke model to maximise the use of existing capabilities and infrastructure. However, the most important step is to bring together the most relevant stakeholders to work on a sound business case that will encompass all three recommendations.

The initial response to the report is positive and NPL will continue to engage with the key stakeholders using the appropriate channels to realise these recommendations for the benefit of the UK composites community. As an example, we have planned a secondment with Composites UK to work closely with their members and map the performance and safety approval process for rail infrastructure applications, aiming to pave the way for further use of advanced composites in rail platforms, footbridges, decking etc.

Do you have any advice for IOM3 members on how to make a start?

The support the British Composites Society provides is great in disseminating the report and the key recommendations to the relevant industry stakeholders. I think that the British Composites Society has a role to play around supporting the upskilling of the workforce, which fits perfectly with the second recommendation in the report and a future mentoring scheme that would require suitably qualified and experience professionals that will assist companies to take on more composites.

As with any enabling material, there are several challenges that once overcome the sector can achieve its full potential. For composites, these have been identified around technology gaps, the supply chain, sustainability, skills, and regulations, codes and standards. We have the breadth of knowledge and capabilities in the UK, and by working closely with the British Composites Society, Composites UK and the Composites Leadership Forum, I don’t see why these can’t be addressed in the years to come to enable greater use of composites in ways that address grand societal, environmental and economic challenges.

One of the greatest advantages of composites is that you can tailor them the way you want for any given application and unlike traditional materials, you more or less don’t know the actual material until you have made the final products. We should ensure that this remains an advantage and does not become a barrier for the use of composites.