Unstable composites - ICMAC report
Brave, immature and disruptive faces the desire for standardisation and security. Khai Trung Le reports on day one of ICMAC.
At the back of the lecture stage at the International Conference on Manufacture of Advanced Composites (ICMAC) was a suggestion board, where attendees were invited to respond to the following question – What would make a significant long-term difference to the production of advanced composites, resulting in a step-change improvement in market activity?
Answers included cost-effective tooling techniques, more robust design tools and, cutting to the heart of the matter, cheaper carbon fibre. But no answer was repeated more than twice. There was no consensus, and much can be said for the greater conference. Equally passionate and uncertain, speakers and delegates spoke fervently about the future of the industry, celebrated its achievements and debated how best to resolve the uncertainty that came from its relative immaturity. As Dr Anoush Poursatip, Professor at the University of British Columbia, Department of Materials Engineering, said, ‘If I look at a lot of the talks going on over the next couple of days, it’s all about understanding what is going on.’
Poursatip undoubtedly made the biggest impact at the very start of the conference, with a keynote that pulled no punches and did not hesitate to pinpoint the history of shortcomings in the composites industry.
'In 1968, Rolls-Royce put carbon fibre in the RB211, and that, of course, was a hasty step,’ referring to the substantial technical difficulties that would later cause the company to go into receivership in 1971, ‘and you think, “fair enough, those were early days, we’ve got our act together now”. The reality is we’re still limping along. Look at the 2013 Learjet programme, which of course is now in hiatus, to perhaps the most successful introduction of composites to date, the Boeing 787. There was an interesting Orwellian twist to Boeing’s insights at the Carbon Fibre 2014 conference.’
Poursatip refers to a Composites World article discussing a keynote speech made by John Byrne, Vice President of Aircraft Materials and Structures at Boeing Commercial Airplanes. The original headline Despite 787, Boeing not sold on composites was swiftly replaced with the current headline Boeing offers insight on 787 composites lessons, although the original remains visible in the page URL. ‘The title of the article was changed within 24 hours.’
Byrne claimed that the composites industry was immature, especially compared with the metals industry – ill equipped to deal with the material and fabrication needs of companies like Boeing, and a supply chain acerbically described as ‘tentative’, and Poursatip was inclined to agree. It was a keynote best described as tough love.
But love all the same. Poursatip left an impression on almost every attendee, and was widely celebrated as the talk that defined the day. It was described as ‘sobering’ by Peter Calvert, Composite Manufacturing Capability Acquisition at Rolls-Royce, ‘insightful’ by Dr Christian Brauner, fibre composite, structural and process development at Faserinstitut Bremen, and Dylan MacLean, manufacturing software, Autodesk, noted that it was ‘interesting to see how the emphasis of the industry is bringing the analytics and understanding of defects much higher up in the design phase of composites manufacturing’.
ICMAC saw a tremendous variety of speakers, from Synthesites Innovative Technologies’ Nikos Pantelelis’ developments in intelligent process monitoring and control, to University of Bristol PhD student Helene Jones presenting a handheld laminating tool known as a dibber, intended to provide a standardised technique for what is otherwise an unspecific art.
However it was Turlough McMahon, Head of Industrial R&T, Components Platform at Airbus, who rallied spirits with one of the closing talks. Displaying none of Boeing’s hesitance, Airbus’ continual commitment to composites was firmly reiterated. With 53% of the A350 comprised of this material, it is the industry poster child of the fleet.
‘We see a progressive application of composites across the decades. I think it’s fair to say that we’ve increased the content in every aircraft, and it’s never really removed once it’s implemented on a part. With the A350, it was the right material at the right place. It was a great experience, we successfully converted to automate some of the largest carbon structures in the world.’
However, McMahon always recognised the essential growth for the industry, expressing a desire for improved buy-to-fly ratio, line-in inspection testing, cure monitoring, reducing recurring costs beyond just price, and increased production efficiency.
‘Not only for the lay-up, but there are a lot of other process steps before and after. The example on trimming is stringers – we form it, we cure it, we cut the top off, trim that, probably need to seal it after and overseal it with lightning strike protection. These steps overall take longer than the initial lay-up.’
‘The future is automation.’ Calvert was unequivocal with his belief in the future of the industry. ‘Look at the metals industry, where they have CNC machines and can monitor extensively. Composites manufacturing doesn’t have anything like that at the moment. In the next 10 years, I expect we’ll see machines that can self-correct, based on a criteria of pre-set faults and readings.’ But automation is far from a catchall, with the nuances of the sector determining the level of commitment towards automation. ‘Bike manufacture, for example, should remain pretty much the same and stay manual. But almost everything else – aerospace, automotive – will become automated.’
MacLean was more reserved with his comments, noting, ‘There are two divergent paths. There are the people who like to improve on what’s tried-and-true, try to make that work for what is currently available. And then you have people looking to disrupt what those technologies currently are. I don’t mean to equivocate, but you need to find a mix of both. It’s very interesting to see who’ll take a risk on a disruptive technology and who wants to make what they have better. I think there are a few different philosophies but it’s got to be a little of both.’
However, it was MacLean’s comments regarding the composites industry’s attitude to its older, more robust brother, the metals industry, that caught the ears of many.
‘For years, we’ve been hearing over and over how carbon fibre is not black metal. It’s a standard trope over the years, but if that’s really the case, how come if you look at these two parts,’ referring to his slideshow, ‘how come they look so similar? It’s because we’re simply looking at carbon fibre as a replacement for steel or aluminium. The question to ask, though, is how can we exploit the weight-saving capabilities of carbon fibre if the tools we have at our disposal are based on metallic design methodologies? Could it be that the design within the context of manufacturing is the future for composites in our industry?’