Solvay has the composite materials to help the automotive and aerospace industries answer sustainability challenges. But in order to do that, there are a few hurdles to overcome – like making sure manufacturing robots can work with the sticky composites. It’s a team effort.

ABB-RoboticsThese days, end customers have increasing expectations in terms of sustainability when it comes to cars and airplanes. One of the most efficient ways to ensure those machines consume less energy is to make them lighter, which is where the use of composite materials such as carbon fiber has a key role to play. But successfully industrializing manufacturing processes based on composites comes with a couple of challenges: the raw material is more expensive than metal, so the focus must be placed on total cost of ownership, which means looking at how manufacturing higher volumes of parts in less time can be achieved. And that implies using robots.

Which in turn confronts Solvay with a challenge of its own: adapting the composites it produces so that they can be used by robots. Concretely speaking, most current composite materials are too sticky to be manipulated by robots: parts can be picked up but not placed correctly. Solvay has been investing to develop specially tailored products, but here as in so many other situations, the real solution is to be found in collaboration. Together with automotive/aerospace industries as well as robot manufacturers, Solvay is aiming to develop a new ecosystem at a time when the entire industry is at a crucial turning point. “We work intimately with our key customers in order to truly understand their needs and constraints, explains Rob Blackburn, Application Engineering Director at Solvay Composite Materials. Fundamentally, we see very clearly that for the composites industry to be successful in high volume industrialization, a strong collaborative approach is necessary.”

A giant leap lies ahead

In the meantime, usage is already there: everyone has heard of the increasing proportion of airplanes that is made with composite materials, for example. So the question isn’t creating a new market or convincing players to change their ways, but managing the leap towards massive use. “The gap remaining now is that of high volume industrialization, says Rob Blackburn. This is no trivial task and if the industry cannot adjust, it will be a failure.”
In addition to the stickiness issue (or ‘tack’ in more technical parlance), another challenging element for the automation of composites use is the fact this is a soft, delicate and easily distorted material – not the best combination with the rigidity and fast movements of robots. “This interaction of material and machine is critical to any industrialized success”, which is where Solvay’s “deep knowledge of material-process interactions” is key in finding all the necessary solutions towards building more efficient, easier mobility. Yes, the stakes are high and “Solvay will be a clear leader in shaping this element of the industry.”