Cutting the cost and environmental impact of composite production

The waterjet cutter at the AMRC
Following the completion of a four-year European research project, involving the University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre with Boeing (AMRC), technologies and techniques that reduce the cost and environmental impact of using composites are entering production.

The REFORM project claims to have cut the energy used in some processes by more than 50%, reduced production costs by more than 45% and increased recycling of some consumables and raw materials to around 95%.

Nine companies and four research organisations from different countries, took part in the project, funded by the European 7th Framework Factory of the Future Programme and sparked by the increasing use of fibre-reinforced composites to replace metals in the transport and construction industries.

However, the manufacturing and assembly processes used to make composite structures are not always as environmentally friendly as they might be and the potential for recycling composites has been limited.

REFORM co-ordinator, Dr Rosemary Gault, said: “REFORM focused on four areas – forming, machining, assembly and recycling – to make sure gains made in one area did not lead to waste and inefficiency elsewhere.”

Work on forming using laser-assisted tape lay-up and augmented reality is said to have led to reductions in energy requirements, scrap, time and labour costs. As a result, lay-up systems with advanced control are now being made available to composite manufacturers.

Research into water jet machining of components resulted in up to 95% recovery of water and abrasives, a reduction of up to 75% in machine and delivery times and less scrap. New recycling, cutting head, positioning and fixturing systems will be made available to industry, along with a novel waterjet nozzle that could double cutting speeds for the same energy.

Industry will also benefit from the development of modular, light weight, reconfigurable composite fixturing and tooling under the project’s Assembly theme, which is claimed to have reduced the manufacturing time for new tooling by around 70% and cut tooling costs by more than 90%, while also reducing the time to ramp up production and cycle times.

As a result of the research, it is now possible to recycle scrap material and turn it into boards that can be used to make parts, new tooling, replacements for fixtures and for any application where flat boards and assemblies are required.

Meanwhile, the project reported that work on methods for recycling laminates and fibres succeeded in producing material using up to 80% less energy at about a fifth of the cost of virgin fibre.

Tom Austin-Morgan

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