Unless you are lucky enough to start a project with a clean sheet of paper, I’m betting a rarity for most, many are locked in to material, process and tooling constraints even before they begin brainstorming. The fact is, any dramatic shift in material type, supplier or process carries risk, cost and uncertainly: things most engineers don’t want looming over their heads during a product launch.
Significant shifts in material type have been witnessed within a few major industries in recent years including aerospace that adopted primary carbon fibre composite structures and automotive that is in the process of doing so. These major material transitions serve as good case studies for the rest of us and highlight that material choices are changing, so engineers need to increasingly on the lookout for metal replacement opportunities.
Find the right partner
What is clear from both the automotive and aerospace industry is that making a transition is immensely difficulty. If anyone tells you new material adoption is easy, they are probably in sales, and not engineering. Key to making the transition as impactful as possible is finding the right partners, after all material suppliers are just as keen to make advanced materials work for you, and get them out working in more applications.
Dr Matt Thornton, senior manager, Haydale Composite Solutions (HCS) has first-hand experience in opening discussions with engineers about the possibilities of using the advanced material, graphene.
“It is a challenging conversation,” he says. “For us, it is about taking a holistic approach, which means working with a range of different size companies. So, you have the larger players that are slower and more cautious, like Huntsman on a thermoset material – a huge company with a huge market share. But, we also work with smaller manufacturers, which are much more reactive and are able to just give it a try in a product.”
While Haydale often finds there is a great deal of interest in graphene, with many engineers having read headlines such as, ‘wonder material… strongest and lightest material yet’, getting commitment from engineers and manufacturers without clear datasheets is difficult.
“It is difficult for a small company like us to be able to invest in the full characterisation of graphene so our materials are doing exactly the same thing every time in whatever product they are used in,” says Dr Thornton. “We are working with a small 3D printing filament manufacturer in the UK. It is no mistake that is first product we’ve launched in the graphene enhanced polymer composites area because it is a hobbyist material at the moment so there is a very low barrier to entry as there is no so much regulation.”
One potential route to market is the dispersion of graphene in to a composite matrix material such as a thermoset resin or even thermoplastic, to enhance the properties of the overall composite. By using its functionalised Graphene nanoplatelets and Carbon nanotubes, it’s found composites can yield a 50% increase in compression after impact (CAI) strength, 60% improved in-plane shear strength as well as the inclusion of other properties including electrical and thermal conductivity.
To help prove out the potential of the material, HCS has partnered with Liverpool based single-seater track day sports car manufacturer, BAC Mono. It was keen to trial Haydale’s graphene-enhanced resin to evaluate its performance.
Ian Briggs, BAC’s co-founder and design director, says: “What we can save in mass on structures we can deliver in terms of improved performance. At BAC we focus heavily on innovation.”
BAC is the first manufacturer in the world to develop a car featuring panels made from graphene and it is uniquely placed in the automotive industry to be able to take these initial development steps. As the graphene composite is stronger, it allows a reduction in the amount of fibres in a lay-up, reducing weight and critically the cost of carbon fibre. BAC chose to test the use of graphene on the rear wheel arches due to the size and complexity of the part, to thoroughly test the manufacturing process and how the material fitted in with the car.
Haydale’s proprietary process allows the dispersion of functionalised graphene within the resin matrix and for BAC it has seen 20% reduction in weight. This has clear implications for cost, performance and fuel economy in vehicles if applied widely in the manufacturing process.
Ebby Shahidi, director of aerospace and defence at HCS, says: “The design and development of the graphene enhanced carbon fibre materials for the BAC Mono have shown some major increases in impact and thermal performance coupled with improved surface finish.”
What is graphene and graphene composite?
Graphene is made of sheets of carbon just one atom thick, and is significantly lighter than standard carbon fibre. It is also stronger than carbon fibre, meaning that it can bring weight reductions of around 20% while being 200 times stronger than steel. These benefits could have implications for cost, performance and fuel economy when applied wider in the manufacturing process.
While graphene enhanced polymers are available today as 3D printing filaments, these are aimed at the hobbyist market that has very low barriers to entry. Haydale has formed a number of other relationships with the like of Huntsman, which are likely to qualify the a thermoset resin to extremely rigid and repeatable standards before its release. However, this development work could see its use in the automotive and aerospace sector greatly enhanced.
“At the moment graphene is very much at the product 1.0 stage,” concludes Dr Thornton. “We are busy behind the scenes developing more engineering solution, engineering materials and engineered polymers with graphene enhancements.”
Materials Innovation: View from Industry
Why designers, engineers and manufacturers need to be in it together
For many, the next stage of innovation will come directly from the use of advanced materials and processes, but the practical challenge is far from straightforward. With years of experience working at the cutting edge of industry, Bart Simpson gives his view on what the future holds.
In most industries, especially automotive and aviation, manufacturers are striving to design products that are stronger and lighter than before, using traditional materials. However, the limitations of aluminium and steel means manufacturers are increasingly turning to next generation materials to meet the demand for faster, more efficient end products.
However, these new materials are a long way from what most traditional factories are used to dealing with. Given the benefits advanced materials, why aren’t manufacturers taking more advantage? Often, they may take a more conservative approach to next generation materials as they are still being tested across different applications.
For example, in BAC Mono’s case, graphene is being tested on a small section of the car to figure out how it performs on the road. Early adopters such as BAC Mono are crucial to helping the industry develop more knowledge and understanding in this area. Simulation also has a part to play in helping designers improve the speed of the testing process by allowing them to assess performance digitally, skipping several steps of manual, real world testing.
One of the biggest barriers to embracing new materials is the need to adapt existing manufacturing processes. Setting up new ways of making things involves investment in infrastructure as well as a cultural change.
Physically, composites are much more aggressive on the tooling that’s normally used, so manufacturers have to consider the additional costs of replacing tooling that will wear out more quickly when working with composites.
Another common issue is that more steps will need to be taken with advanced materials to achieve a desired shape than with mainstream materials. For example, with a standard material such as steel, a body panel will be pressed and a second tool will cut the edges. With more advanced materials, like CFRP for example, a robot will use its cutting tools to cut the edges of the component as well as other additional stages depending on the design and specifications.
A new way of thinking
By considering working with new materials and adapting manufacturing processes you’ll have a better chance of keeping up with the current demand for faster, better and lighter products. Disruption such as this creates new opportunities but manufacturers will have to plan ahead to have the structures in place on both the design and manufacturing side to fulfil it.
Both designers and manufacturers need to work closer together to craft advanced materials into the desired end product. This will mean changing the design process as well as ensuring that the tools are in place on the factory floor.
Organisations that are siloed with separate design and manufacturing processes will find it hard to evolve. To create the factory of the future we’ll need to embrace a shared mindset between designers and manufacturers to ensure the most innovative designs can become a reality.
About the author:
Bart Simpson is senior director of Operation at Autodesk