Largest ever UK government research and development investment will make UK composites world leader
The National Composites Centre, a world-renowned focal point for innovation and excellence, hosting over 300 specialist researchers, engineers and innovators, has announced a major new research and development investment programme that will help define the future of composites.
£36.7 million is being invested in ten new technologies, tailor-made to the NCC’s specifications, in order to push the state of the art and speed the development of new processes for all forms of composite manufacturing. Funded, in part, by the Aerospace Technology Institute, the iCAP programme will bring composites into the digital age, increasing production rates and quality while improving efficiency and reducing cost (the Digital Capability Acquisition Programme).
NCC partners, in sectors ranging from aerospace and transport to construction and FMCG, will gain access to next-generation technology and be able to test new techniques alongside the NCC’s expert team. The ultimate aim of the programme is to help companies boost productivity and secure the UK’s position at the forefront of high-value manufacturing.
The timing is apposite as global demand for composite products is set to increase by 4.1% each year from 2018 to 2023. It is predicted that the market will be worth $105.8 billion by 2020, up 55% from 2013, as the world looks for new materials to produce lighter, more fuel-efficient vehicles and stronger, more durable structures.
The aerospace sector, for example, needs to replace an ageing global fleet of passenger and freight planes with more fuel-efficient aircraft, compliant with increasingly stringent noise and emissions legislation. Cutting weight is key, so composites will play an essential role in delivering the performance gains required whilst maintaining safety standards. The scale of the manufacturing challenge is huge. Aircraft manufacturers are building at the highest rate ever and the trend is set to continue as demand continues to grow.
In response to this challenge, the NCC is fostering partnerships between aerospace manufacturers, equipment and material suppliers to develop radically different automated manufacturing technologies. Two key goals of the NCC’s initiative is to apply data-lead methodologies (often referred to as ‘Industry 4.0’) to increase composite production rates and create a new cohort/generation of engineers with both the understanding and the ambition to realise the potential of the new technologies. For example, NCC’s experts will show how potential issues can be identified and corrected far more quickly, thanks to the richer and more actionable information produced by combining computer simulations with actual measured data from manufacturing processes.
10 technologies being installed at NCC are funded, in part, by The Aerospace Technology Institute, in collaboration with the Local Enterprise Partnership and the High-Value Manufacturing Catapult. One of iCAP’s major projects is linked to Wing of Tomorrow. Launched in 2015 by Airbus, this partnership project involves a number of companies including, Spirit and GKN. Other aerospace developments for iCAP include Rolls-Royce and Airbus Ultra Fan cowling and GE Dowty’s composite propeller manufacturer.
It’s not all about aerospace, however; sectors including automotive, construction, marine, oil, gas and the renewable energy industries also stand to benefit. For example, high-speed injection moulding, overbraiding and automated forming methods have multiple applications in the automotive industry, where manufacturers demand one minute cycle times and production-line-ready parts straight out of the mould.
The first iCAP machine has already been installed and brought online: an innovative combination of automated fibre placement and filament winding capabilities, it is already delivering research work to UK-industry. Two additional technologies are currently being built and tested at the National Composites Centre’s base in Bristol: an ‘overbraider’, used to create hollow structures up to 1m in diameter and 10m in length from intertwined fibres, which is the largest of its kind in Europe; and a uniquely flexible new design of ‘over-moulder’, a device which combines materials, such as fibre-reinforced composite and injection moulded polymers, to create products with specific properties, such as the sole of a football boot able to flex in a certain directions, or a strengthening beam within a car body panel). The new iCap overmoulder is also fully automated and able to produce a product every 60 seconds.
Seven other technologies will be installed by October 2019 and include a Composite Integrity Verification Cell for non-destructive testing, large-scale liquid composite infusion to build structures such as boat hulls, and automated deposition machines that will radically reduce production times. Together they will give the NCC the ability to produce individual composite parts up to 10m long across a broader range of processes and bolster its position as a world leader in automated deposition know-how.
Richard Oldfield Chief Executive Officer of the NCC said: “The NCC’s iCap programme will deliver a step change in innovation to the composites industry, transforming the scale of the parts that can be made, increasing manufacturing speeds and automating the Non-Destructive Testing process. Together, these will help to build confidence and acceptance in new sectors and cement the UK’s position as a world leader in composites.”