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SABIC’s breakthrough mass production technology for thermoplastic composite laminates

Thermoplastic composites are prized for their light weight and exceptional strength.

However, mainstream adoption has lagged due to shortcomings in existing production processes, which are slow, costly, and labour- and waste-intensive. To drive broader use of these advanced materials across multiple industries, SABIC, a global leader in the chemical industry, has invested in the composites industry’s first automated, digital system for the large-scale manufacturing of laminates made with its continuous fibre reinforced thermoplastic composite tapes.

Whilst the company exhibited at JEC World 2018, SABIC previewed the Digital Composites Manufacturing system, an automated and digitised production line developed with Airborne and powered by Siemens. The new line, slated to go live in early 2019, will aim to offer customisation capabilities – using sophisticated technologies and processes that can drive down cycle times and system costs.

“Rapid mass production of high-quality, fully customised thermoplastic composite parts at an affordable cost will soon be a reality,” said Gino Francato, global business leader, Composites, SABIC. “The upcoming launch of our Digital Composites Manufacturing line – the composites industry’s first large-scale production solution – is a major step toward that goal.”

Arno van Mourik, chief executive officer of Airborne, added “With Airborne’s ingenuity and more than 20 years of experience in composites manufacturing processes, we are developing this line using Industry 4.0 automation and data exchange principles. This will enable SABIC’s customers to develop, prototype and produce unique, differentiated products that leverage the strength and light weight of SABIC’s continuous fibre reinforced thermoplastic composites.”

The new large-scale manufacturing line, built by Airborne at its facility in The Netherlands using Siemens factory automation and digital control software, can produce multiple thermoplastic composite laminates every minute, achieving over a million parts annually.

"To achieve such fast and reliable production performance for composites, an intensive collaboration between Airborne, SABIC and Siemens is a must,” said John O’Connor, Director of Product and Market Strategy, Specialised Engineering Software at Siemens. "Our joint ambition is to strengthen the competitiveness of Airborne and SABIC by increasing flexibility, productivity and speed of innovation. To this end, digitisation is key when it comes to a breakthrough in the production process.”

For ultimate flexibility, this system can be remotely operated and can run multiple laminate sizes simultaneously. Machine learning concepts will be used to fine-tune quality and adaptive process control will allow settings to be modified on the fly.

The Digital Composites Manufacturing line will be supported by predictive engineering capabilities at SABIC’s Centre of Excellence in The Netherlands. Predictive engineering for UDMAX™ tapes is based on computer-aided engineering (CAE) software that uses material data and material modelling (such as elastic properties and damage initiation/rupture behaviour) to create simulations of how the composite material will perform in an application during its use, considering the influence of manufacturing processes.

The Digital Composites Manufacturing line will premiere its first-generation technology to meet immediate needs in the consumer electronics industry.

The Digital Composites Manufacturing line will be able to mass-produce lightweight, high modulus and low warpage, custom-engineered laminates as per thickness, dimensions, lay-up preferences and desired performance. Made of carbon-fibre reinforced polycarbonate composite, these SABIC laminates will be used for laptop covers.

“By responding to our customers’ needs for increasingly lighter, yet stronger and thinner products in large scale, we will soon be enabling our customers to leverage the advantages of SABIC’s laminates to achieve not only weight-out but also design flexibility and shorter production cycle times for device covers – more effectively than ever before,” concluded Mr Francato.