From vans to airplanes: composite materials gain ground
Accelerating the industrialisation of composite parts manufacturing
A Solvay partnership in the UK is paving the way for the industrialisation of the production of composite material parts for vehicles, making for quicker and easier manufacturing, and lightweighting to reduce CO2 emissions. ASDA Delivery vans are first, but the aerospace industry is paying close attention.
Penso is a British manufacturing and engineering services company specialized in the production of automotive parts made of composite materials for high-end vehicles, or “supercars”. Solvay partnered with Penso to create the Flexible Lightweight Architecture for Volume Applications (FLAVA) consortium, with the objective of establishing a composite supply chain for the automotive industry that could offer new manufacturing processes enabling design flexibility, logistics simplification and lightweighting to meet emissions legislation, while reducing costs. In 2017, FLAVA was awarded a multi-million pound grant by the UK’s Advanced Propulsion Centre (APC), and Mercedes-Benz Vans UK quickly became a project partner.
Taking composites from niche to mainstream
As a leading supplier of high performance composite materials, Solvay has been collaborating with Penso for many years. The idea with this project was to work on increasing volumes and demonstrate the possibilities offered by industrialisation, thus paving the way for the robotization of composite intensive manufacturing lines. “Composite parts for the automotive industry are still a relatively small market,” Gérald Perrin, Head of Automotive Business Development at Solvay’s Composite Materials (pictured above). “What we’re doing here is working on solutions to decrease costs and make manufacturing processes more robust in order to enable mass production.”
Traditionally, the production of car parts made of composites tends to be a slow and expensive process, due to the nature of the material, which requires more manipulation and generates more losses than working with metal does. But at its facility in Heanor, UK, Solvay created a pilot unit to demonstrate that a fully robotized manufacturing process for composite parts was possible. This required working on the composites themselves, particularly their chemistry in order to accelerate polymerization. The result: the rapid production of perfectly identical, flawless parts without any human intervention.
The manufacturing processes and chemistries we have developed for this project have demonstrated their validity are now ready to be deployed.
New processes for advanced materials
Solvay typically produces prepregs, sheets of impregnated carbon fibre that manufacturers then cut out to produce their parts. But to obtain the desired thickness for a given part, you have to superimpose a certain number of plies, a lengthy process that is generally carried out by hand. By managing to robotize this step, the pilot unit at Heanor brought down the time necessary to produce a part from several hours to three minutes!
“Through FLAVA, Solvay was able to demonstrate that composite intensive vehicles like delivery vans could be produced industrially. We did this by investing in product development and automation R&D and industrialising our composite manufacture, ultimately contributing to establish a supply chain for our end customers”, explains Gérald. “FLAVA is a stepping stone on our industrialisation roadmap.”(pictured above: Gerald Perrin, Aurele Bras, Claire-Michel, Richard Hollis, John Hackett, Jed-Richter from the Solvay-Team)
The end users in question are the manufacturers who build the types of trucks used for the home delivery of consumers’ online purchases. The rapid expansion of this market is driving substantial demand growth, with specific technical requirements such as modularity and thermal resistance, as these vans have to be able to transport goods at sub-zero, refrigerated and ambient temperatures simultaneously. “Our collaboration with Penso on composite-intensive manufacturing provides several advantages for these vehicles: their reduced weight decreases their emissions, while their payload is increased, which means they can serve more customers per route,” continues Gérald. Penso’s fully robotized assembly plant for for these trucks will begin full-scale manufacturing in 2020.
The sky is the limit for composites
“Now that this new market is in the process of being inaugurated, our interest is to transpose these manufacturing processes to other markets such as large-scale car production and the aerospace industry, from new aerospace platforms to urban air mobility,” says Gérald. Technological partnerships with some of the major players in these industries have already been signed, and visits to the showcase that the Heanor pilot unit are scheduled for early 2020.
A traditionally conservative industry where innovations are implemented slowly, the aerospace sector is increasingly looking at technological developments happening in the faster-moving automotive industry. “The manufacturing processes and chemistries we have developed for this project have demonstrated their validity,” sums up Gérald. “They are now ready to be deployed in the automotive and aerospace industries as well.” Composite parts for vehicles of all sorts just got in the fast lane.