Cover story: Making a material difference

In advance of the opening of the National Composites Centre in Bristol this year, Paul Fanning finds out what this facility could mean for UK industry.

In September this year, the National Composites Centre will open officially. The 8500m2 state-of-the-art NCC building opens in summer 2011 at SPark, the Bristol and Bath Science Park.

Designed to bring together dynamic companies and enterprising academics to develop new technologies for the design and rapid manufacture of high-quality composite products, the centre has its origins in November 2009, when the then Government launched the UK Composites Strategy, in which it outlined the importance of composites to the future of UK manufacturing and the its plans for ensuring that the UK has the means to succeed in intensely competitive global markets.

In the original UK Composites Strategy document, the then Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills Peter Mandelson outlined the strengths of the UK composites market, but also made clear its shortcomings, saying: "The UK already has a developed expertise in using composites in aerospace and high-performance cars but we need to do better in the increasingly competitive composites industry. Up to now activity has been too sector-specific which has limited the development of a cohesive composites industry and the transfer of technology to the manufacture of other products in other sectors which could be built using composites."

The Strategy document identified a number of barriers to market in the composites sector. One of these is that the UK composites industry is fragmented and lacks a single voice to articulate industry requirements. This has tended to mean that few firms have the critical mass to invest in equipment to make composite structures at the speed and cost industry requires.

Consequently, technology and skill transfer between companies and sectors has been hindered by the industry's structure. Alongside this, according to the document "there is a shortage of the necessary skills at nearly all levels, as training is difficult to identify and access and qualifications address specific industry sectors rather than the composites industry itself."

The National Composites Centre is designed – at least in part – to help companies overcome these barriers. The man tasked with this is Peter Chivers, pictured, the Centre's Executive Director. He acknowledges that the adoption of composite solutions has historically been largely limited to certain sectors, but believes that this is changing and will change further when the Centre opens.

He says: "We have to support existing sectors like aerospace, defence, etc, but we also have to make a strong push for cross-sectoral knowledge transfer and support for new sectors. By trying to work with those sectors in supporting them in understanding what they've got to do to apply these technologies. And helping them solve the problems they have.

"The application of the technology will obviously not be the same in every sector. So we will try and work with them either as private companies or potentially through, for example, Technology Strategy Board-funded programmes to develop the solutions that they need."

The advantages of composites, such as high strength-to-weight ratio, good fatigue endurance and lower maintenance costs are, Chivers believes, quite widely understood, but he feels there is still a lot of work to do in translating that into more widespread use throughout industry. He believes that this requires a philosophical shift on the part of engineers as much as a technical one.

He says: "Composites are not going to solve every problem. It's about intelligent material selection as always. We're just starting to add a suite of new materials that you can throw into the mix, but there are always going to be right and wrong times to use these materials. The first thing we have to do is get the designers to understand the merits and demerits of the use of composite materials and where they fit into the design spectrum.

"Perhaps a really key issue is that you can do it in two steps. You can start to do it on a substitutional basis, but the real benefits don't come from pure substitution. To just replace a part that was in metallic and redesign it as a composite typically doesn't lead you to the best solution. You need to understand the way the material operates not just from a pure material point of view but how you can customise the material to the application."

Offering an example of this, he says: "You've only got to look at the way bicycle frames have evolved to understand more and more how composites now are changing the architecture of components. You can also start to think much more fundamentally about the way in which products are designed and start to come up with some really radical design concepts. Of course, you don't have to go there from day one. You have to develop that knowledge and that confidence before you go there."

In terms of helping designers to develop that knowledge and confidence, the National Composites Centre will offer companies both expert advice, facilities and equipment designed to allow concepts to be developed to prototype stage. Describing the Centre as: "Essentially a research factory. A design and build facility", Chivers says: "We see ourselves starting with universities and academia – bringing through some really good ideas and trying to mature those with the customer base in industry."

The opportunity also exists for companies to work at the Bristol site in order to bring projects to fruition. The Centre provides what Chivers calls "a collaboration space", as well as state-of-the-art equipment that can be used on a 'power-by-the-hour' basis, meaning that the capital outlay is kept to a minimum.

As well as space to rent to carry out project work using their own resource and working with their partners and supply chain, the National Composites Centre also offers access to its own expert developers, according to Chivers. "We are building up a team of expert composite engineers," he says. "We're calling them research engineers because these are people who are in the space between academia and industry – some of them are drawn from industry and others from academia.

By bringing them together into that world of applied research, we are already developing an excellent team of real experts in maturing technology and technology application. They are expert in taking things to a point of prototype where the design is proven and the manufacturing process is validated.

"We will have people from all disciplines – designers, stress engineers, structural engineers, materials and process people, quality and cost engineers. A complete sweep of capabilities is our plan. Internal consultants effectively, but charged as engineers (so we're not talking about great expense) but real engineers who can bed into your team and help you solve real engineering problems."

Chivers believes that the wider adoption of composite technologies and solutions is already well underway and sees the role of the National Composites Centre as being to facilitate that transition as effectively as possible. "There are a lot of people out there with a growing familiarity with composites and their capabilities and will look at investing in them," he says. "If we can identify real engineering, manufacturing and economic benefits, then our role is to provide support for that investment and help in developing new applications. That's a real opportunity to convince those who don't see how composites will work for them. "

UK TICs show the way
The National Composites Centre will be one of the partners in the High Value Manufacturing Technology and Innovation Centres, the first of which was opened in Sheffied in March. This was the first of an elite network of Technology and Innovation Centres that will be established by the Technology Strategy Board with over £200m of Government investment overall.

Other centres will be founded and announced in due course, each in technology areas of high growth potential. The other partners are the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (University of Sheffield), Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (Universities of Manchester and Sheffield), Manufacturing Technology Centre (Coventry), Advanced Forming Research Centre (University of Strathclyde), Centre for Process Innovation (Wilton & Sedgefield) and the WMG (University of Warwick).

Peter Chivers on composites
"Composites are useful anywhere you have a product that moves Saving weight means using less energy to make it move. Be that accelerating or going round corners or whatever. Less energy means lower CO2 emissions and less cost to run it. have become such big drivers that the benefits of composites in terms of performance have become ever more important.

The automotive industry has started to recognise that and they are trying to find ways to make the technology shift from metallics to composites because the emission reductions you're going to get in the automotive industry are potentially quite significant. And with the move to electric vehicles, where you get the gearing on weight reduction whereby for every kilo you save in structural weight, you can save the same amount of weight in the battery, then it's a powerful driver as well.

So we're seeing everything from existing sectors which have some challenges to meet in cost and rate of manufacture, but are still looking for performance advantages. And there are relatively low-tech users who want to move into high-tech use and new sectors who want to move into it.

Then there are other interesting ones such as the construction industry, where they're seeing significant advantages not because of weight savings – not many buildings accelerate or decelerate – but for other interesting reasons. For example anything where weight is a design criterion if you can make that thing lighter then you can, for instance, achieve a greater span in a bridge and make the bridge structure lighter.

Another interesting area is where you can make a bridge structure in one piece rather than in lots of pieces. There's a growing market for composite footbridges for railways where the bridge can be made off-site in one piece. Because it's so light, it doesn't need a central pier and it's light enough to be handled as a whole construction.

There are two advantages to that: they can bring it to site as a complete structure and they can install it virtually overnight. The downtime for the railway or motorway is so much reduced because you don't have to build a central pier and you don't have to build the bridge at site. You just do some work to either side of the railway or carriageway and then bring the bridge to site, bolt it down and it's done.

Through-life maintenance is also massively reduced because you don't have the issues of corrosion and you don't have to paint it as often because the composite bridge is much more tolerant of weathering and environmental impact."

Paul Fanning

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