Greater use of automation, out-of-autoclave tooling, ceramic matrix composites and processing for structures - plus more integration of natural fibers, bio-resins, and other “green” materials and processes – are among the main trends projected to dominate the composites manufacturing landscape in the months ahead, experts say.

Other emerging trends coming in the next three to five years, officials at SME say, include steady growth in aerospace and engine manufacturing, particularly with more advanced composites going into aircraft primary structures and next-generation engine and duct and cowl designs.

Automakers are now answering the call for increased fuel efficiency by making greater use of composites in new car designs to reduce vehicle weight, says SME, one of the manufacturing industry’s most trusted sources of knowledge and information.

According to Randy Kappesser, SME’s Composites Manufacturing 2014 Chair and the Composites Technology Leader for GE Aviation at its headquarters in Evendale, Ohio, composites materials are “increasing in use, thereby putting pressure on the manufacturing community to produce parts at a lower cost and improved yields.”

Automotive, aerospace, wind, and sporting goods all continue using more parts made out of composites, Kappesser adds.

“In the automotive, aircraft engine, wind, and aerospace industries, lighter weight parts result in more fuel efficient, lower carbon footprint products,” he tells Leo Rommel of Industry Today. “GE has used composite materials to make parts like the GE90 fan blade, since the early 1990’s and is now leading with another first – the use of ceramic matrix composites in a commercial aircraft engine.”

The growing significance of this particularly beneficial and popular form of manufacturing will be better emphasized at SME’s upcoming Composites Manufacturing Conference and Exposition, which will be held in Covington, Ky.

The conference, which will be held April 8-10 at the Northern Kentucky Convention Center, is regarded as composite manufacturing industry’s authoritative event, exploring and informing the industry’s most influential leaders on how composites are greatly changing:

  • Aerospace;
  • Automotive;
  • Defense;
  • Recreational and sporting goods;
  • Wind and alternative energy.

The three-day event will have expert workshops, conference sessions, and demonstrations of the industry’s latest materials and manufacturing technologies. Moreover, SME officials says that “a day or two” at the event could help manufacturers lower costs, enhance overall product quality, and serve new growth markets.

“SME Composite Manufacturing 2014 brings representatives from a wide range of industries and manufacturing processes together to learn from each other,” Kappesser says. “It is a great opportunity to see how other industries deal with composite manufacturing challenges and opportunities.”

But in order to thoroughly understand why composites manufacturing is booming, it’s important to thoroughly understand what it is, what its benefits are, and what industries it is commonly used in.

Kappesser shed light on all of the above.

Composites manufacturing is the production of parts or components made of materials consisting of at least two primary constituents, according to Kappesser.

“Typical composite materials consist of fiber, carbon, glass, or ceramic material, and a resin,” Kappesser says. “There are many ways to manufacture composite parts across several major industries.”

To illustrate this, Kappesser provides a small handful of ideal examples.

“In some manufacturing processes, like Resin Transfer Molding (RTM) the fiber and resin are combined while enclosed in a mold,” he says. “Other processes like tape laying or fiber placement consist of a fiber that is pre-impregnated with a resin. The material is then applied layer by layer on to a tool, by a machine. The resultant laminate is then cured, solidifying the layers into a solid part.”

The manufacture of parts consisting of composite materials includes a wide variety of industries, Kappesser says, such as sporting goods, automotive, aerospace, jet engine, wind turbine blades, and compressed gas tanks.

“That’s just to name a few,” he says.

In addition, its advantages, according to Kappesser, are numerous. He provides a small handful of its more common rewards for manufacturers who utilize composites today on a daily basis.

“Successful applications of parts consisting of composite materials often contain one or more” of the following valued traits, he says:

  • Lighter in weight: Designers have the ability to design parts where the direction of the fiber corresponds to the loads seen by the part, therefore allowing more fiber to match orientations of high loads, and less fiber in directions that see lower loads;
  • Higher strength: This is in comparison to the same parts made of traditional materials like steel, titanium, aluminum, or plastic;
  • Unitized part designs: These models combine several parts into a single component. This unitized part design reduces overall part count, thereby reducing assembly costs
  • Longer fatigue life: This is in contrast to parts not made of composite materials;
  • Higher heat tolerance: This is especially true in ceramic matrix composites, which allows higher operating engine temperatures, for improved fuel efficiency in aircraft engines;
  • <b Overall, costs are lower than rival products made of traditional materials. Typically, some of the above advantages are leveraged into a superior product at a competitive cost.

Before diving headfirst into what barriers to growth composites manufacturing may have in the near or distant future, let us first rehash what brand name companies have triggered its surge.

First, there is Boeing, Kappesser says, which in 2012 delivered its first 787 Dreamliners to customers. Airbus, in response, will soon be providing their A350 to airliners.

“Over 50 percent of the weight of these new twin aisle aircraft are made of composite materials,” Kappesser says. “In a few years, Boeing and Airbus will be providing new single aisle aircraft like the A320 and 737, with engines from GE that have significantly higher composite material content in the engines.”

“Due to increased use of composite materials and ceramic matrix composites, these new engines are more fuel efficient than their predecessors,” he explains. “In the automotive industry last year, BMW began supplying the i3, which contains a ‘passenger cell’ made out of carbon fiber composite material.”

This is all good news, no doubt. However, it also begs the question: are there any challenges that could slow or even halt composite manufacturing’s mounting progression?

“One of the major challenges for composite manufacturing is the cost of the material is often higher than traditional materials, like aluminum and plastic,” Kappesser says.

Here is another: the automated manufacturing of composite parts. “Despite the increased use of composite materials, many parts are still manually made,” he says.”

These obstacles, while somewhat formidable, have done little to derail or dampen composite manufacturing’s supremacy throughout the American industrial environment and beyond.

“Many of the new programs – like the 787, A350, new GE aircraft engines, and the i3 – use automation to produce composite parts,” Kappesser says. “For these reasons, there is tremendous value in attending SME Composite 2014, to learn more about overcoming these challenges in composites manufacturing, as many automation suppliers will be participating and presenting.”

About SME
SME connects all those who are passionate about making things that improve our world. As a nonprofit organization, SME has served practitioners, companies, educators, government and communities across the manufacturing spectrum for more than 80 years. Through its strategic areas of events, media, membership, training and development, and the SME Education Foundation, SME is uniquely dedicated to advancing manufacturing by addressing both knowledge and skill needs for industry. At SME, we are making the future. Together.


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