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Content archived on 2024-06-10

Development of a manufacturing and signal processing technology to enable SME's in the low value, small batch production of polymer composites to produce smart structures


Products that are produced using polymer composite reinforced materials are varied, but typically focused on to applications within road vehicles, rail vehicles, marine vehicles and aerospace structures. The combination of high levels of stiffness and light weight is the key characteristic in polymer composite materials' success in these areas. However, these products are separated into two distinct groups; high performance components, such as aerospace structures (mainly military), often using carbon reinforcement, in applications where strength and light weight are more critical than cost.low/medium performance components, using glass reinforcement, such as those in low volume road, marine and rail applications, as well as light aircraft, where low tooling and capital costs, combined with small batch production flexibility are the main drivers. The production of these low/medium performance composite structures is largely carried out by small companies, often employing less than 50 people, willing to tolerate the high process set up time. Of the 6000 companies within Europe producing composite, fibre reinforced, polymer components and structures, 4000 are SME's [ref 1]. The combined sales of these SME's is 66 million ECU per annum [ref I ]. For low/medium performance composite products, hand lay up is still the predominant production process used. This segment of the market contains almost all of the total population of SMEs, processing composite materials. However, the inherently large labour content within this production process makes small composite companies vulnerable to competition from lower labour base rate economies, such as those within the Pacific Rim, and more recently the former Eastern Bloc countries. To combat this threat the composites industry in Europe, has target the reduction of manufacturing costs and labour input, through technological developments, such as the application of automated productions processes, like RTM. However, the higher capital cost tooling and injection equipment associated with this technology, has slowed it's take up for lower value component markets and in small batch production applications. Other methods of reducing costs or adding value to their products are urgently being sought. The high performance end of the market is almost exclusively serviced by Divisions of very large industrial groups, present as first tier suppliers in the aerospace and high volume automotive sectors, such as GKN, Courtaulds and BAe. These large companies have developed sophisticated techniques for design, modeling and production of composite material structures, enabling them to provide more technically exacting products. They have also led the development of smart structures, exploiting glass fibres within the composite to provide a transducer feedback, for component diagnostics and input into total system control networks to increase/decrease loads or system temperatures to which the component is being subjected. The commercial imperative for the proposed RTD is to provide SME manufacturers of relatively low value, small batch production components, with a smart structure technology, able to add significant value to products and open up new applications for their manufacturing processes. Therefore, the industrial objective of the proposed RTD is to provide European SMEs involved in the manufacture of composite components, with a processing technology able to integrate commercially available sensors, including fibre optics, piezoelectric and strain gauges, into hand lay up and moulded components, to produce intelligent composite products. This will enable SMEs in supply chains to OEMs in the marine, rail transport, light aircraft and truck bus markets, to offer smart structure technology, as added value to their basic components. The specific applications in which this technology will be initially demonstrated, in the form of case studies, are: The use of smart structures for diagnostic and environmental feedback, during operation, exampled by the detection and removal of ice on components and body panels . within the low volume road, rail, marine or light aircraft sectors.The use of smart structures as a means of measuring force or pressure on a component, exampled by the mapping of foot prints for diabetic patients, in the medical equipment sector.

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Fibrecast Ltd.
EU contribution
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Main Road
LN4 4YD New York
United Kingdom

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Participants (8)