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Making cars and planes lighter on an industrial scale

Composite materials such as carbon fiber are an efficient solution to help the automotive and aerospace industries answer sustainability challenges. As a replacement for metal, they reduce a vehicle or aircraft’s weight, hence its fuel consumption and its CO2 emissions. At a time when these industries are in dire need of improving the environmental footprint of their products, while at the same time the new market of urban air mobility is about to take shape, ramping up the use of composite parts has become somewhat of an urgency. But that comes with a few hurdles – like making sure manufacturing robots can work effectively with complex composite materials.

Machine-material interactions

Why are robots such an important piece of this equation? Because automation is crucial in order for composites to be used on an industrial scale. Manufacturers need to be able to make higher volumes of parts in less time, which requires using robots.

That in turn confronts materials providers such as Solvay with a challenge: adapting composites so that they can be handled by robots. Most current composite materials are too sticky: parts can be picked up but not placed correctly. “Composites historically required manual labor, skilled workers who made complex shapes,” explains Rob Blackburn, Head of Customer Engineering at Solvay’s Composite Materials business unit. “There has been some great utilization of automation, but only for very specific applications. Today, there is a shift towards wider adoption for a much larger spectrum of parts, so the key is working on interactions between machine and material instead as well as human and material. That’s why we’re investing in global application centers and working with our customers to understand what types of automation can help and to look at the critical characteristics of our materials.”

Application centers for customer intimacy 

In these application centers, Solvay can test and showcase its materials in real-life conditions. “Before the commercial launch of a new product, we can demonstrate at its robustness and stability, before we present it to customers,” explains Rob. As for our customers, they can use the centers for the simulation, design, prototyping and validation of their future composite parts.

And each one has its specialty. The Composite Application Center in Heanor (UK) is dedicated to thermoset composites, to develop technologies and processes for high-rate manufacturing; whereas Brussels’ Material Science Application (MSAC) aims to increase the adoption of thermoplastic composites. In Wichita (Kansas, USA), Solvay co-located at an Application Development Center with the National Institute for Aviation Research (NIAR), which focuses on “inventing the future of aviation”. Lastly, an additional center is set to open soon in Solvay’s site in Shanghai.

Non destructive testing Lab


This is because each different application comes with its own specific challenges, and all the types of composites offer varying solutions. “There’s always a trade-off,” says Rob. “For example, thermoplastics are not sticky, so some aspects of automation are easier, but you need just the right amount of heat to work with them. With thermosets, it’s a whole different story.”

With our application centers, Solvay is able to look at our materials from the perspective of the customer. Over the last few years, a lot of progress has been made, chemistries adjusted and new materials developed, but there is always work to do to demonstrate their capabilities and give customers sufficient confidence in the fact they can rely on the same properties and consistency as with legacy processes and materials.




“The gap remaining is that of high-volume industrialization. Challenges will only be overcome through collaboration with our customers.”

Rob Blackburn, Head of Customer Engineering, Composite Materials, Solvay 

Overcoming challenges through collaboration

The big-picture idea is to develop a new ecosystem around the adoption of composites in the aerospace and automotive industries. “By working intimately with our key customers to explore ‘the art of the possible’, we are able to increase manufacturing speed and decrease waste and cost of ownership,” says Rob.

Composite Material Application Center, Heanor (UK)


In the meantime, usage is already there: an increasing percentage of cars and planes are already being made with composites. So the question isn’t so much convincing players to change their ways, but managing the leap towards massive use. “The gap remaining is that of high-volume industrialization,” adds Rob. “This is no trivial task, and if the industry cannot adjust, it will be a failure. Thanks to our investments and talent development, Solvay is viewed as a leader in this area, but the challenges will only be overcome through collaboration with our customers.”