High volume composite manufacture finally here?

I remember talking to spacecraft engineers about composite materials over 15 years ago, and how the commercial aircraft industry would struggle to ever capitalise on the materials advantageous properties. And they did struggle, but it is hard to now ever imagine Boeing or Airbus ever going back to that low-tech heavy shiny stuff from yesteryear.

And we've been having the same conversations about composites in the automotive industry since. But, I think, 2015 marks the year that the material goes in to serious high volume production. One thing is for sure though, no one agrees on the 'how'.

Some, like BMW, have been investing heavily in thermoset carbon fibre, while others are keen to develop something quite different – and that is thermoplastic carbon fibre composites. The obvious difficulty here is viscosity. Liquid Nylon, Acrylic or any of the fore-running engineering plastics are surely never going to properly wet-out a spread-tow weave? I'm yet to be convinced and see it with my own eyes, but I'm told that actually it is quite possible.

At a press conference last year, Dupont executives told me that they had figured it out. But they didn't exactly shout about it. When asked 'how?', the response was a cheeky smile and simply, 'well, that is the difficult part.' They would not elaborate. At all.

And now, Toyota is saying similar things. We have an article on in the Spring 2015 issue looking at the developments and it's interesting to note that while the car giant is giving away 5,000 patents on its fuel cell technology, it will not even comment on its thermoplastic composite developments. Something tells me that like Dupont, it thinks this is going to be huge, and it is something that the global car industry is going to want.

Now, no one knows if it is a conventional prepreg type process, if it will be laid-up in a regular manner or whether it will be longer discontinuous random fibres sprayed on – though I'd be a bit disappointed if it was the latter.

Whatever the details are, it does appear that this is the year we will see composite vehicles rolling off various OEM production lines in what will be initial runs of 'mass-produced' composite cars. These are not concept cars, they are not marketing gimmicks (well... okay, maybe a bit), they are the culmination of years of development. And I'm sure it won't be long before lightweight composite chassis become the norm.

Justin Cunningham

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