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NCC opens additional lab of advanced composite facility

Mar '20
Pic: National Composites Centre
Pic: National Composites Centre
The UK’s National Composites Centre has completed the latest phase of the most advanced composite manufacturing facility. Part laboratory, part factory, the additional venue is the result of a two-year, £36.7 million research and development programme to use new digital technologies. It has the machines to reduce wing-build time from one week to one day.

Demand for composites is growing as manufacturers seek to make products lighter, stronger and more durable. The global market is predicted to be worth $105.8 billion in 2020 and growing at 6.5 per cent per year. The National Composites Centre, based in Bristol and part of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, works to ensure that Britain is at the forefront of this fast-growing sector.

Aerospace is a significant driver of demand, with operators looking to replace ageing aircraft fleets with the latest, most fuel-efficient models. Using current, labour intensive techniques, manufacturers can only make six pairs of wings per month. The market requires 100. Meeting this need means radically re-thinking how wings are made - which is exactly what the National Composites Centre has done.

For the past two years, a team comprising engineers, researchers, software architects, roboticists and textile experts have explored how digital technologies can make composites easier to design for, as well as quicker and cheaper to make. A key goal was to demonstrate that they could be a viable, mass-producible alternative to traditional metallic parts. The results of this research, shown publicly for the first time on February 28, are 10 ground-breaking new machines which redefine the ‘state of the art’ for composite manufacturing.

Launching this new phase, Richard Oldfield, chief executive said: "With the most advanced manufacturing facility in Europe, we truly have an unrivalled world class capability. The investment in 10 new world-leading composites capabilities will enable us to develop the wings and engines for the aircraft of the future, work on technologies that will define the way we produce and store energy and transform the way we build infrastructure."

The new facility has two huge industrial robots that automate the wing production process. Weighing 45 tonnes and 24 tonnes respectively, the robots measure, cut, lift and place pieces of carbon fibre fabric (plies) with millimetric accuracy. They can also lay 5 metres wide strips of composite material, up to 20 metres long, in one precise movement. This could cut the number of fabric components required drastically to just 150, and reduces wing-build time from one week to one day. This has the potential to revolutionise aircraft production.

Other technologies include a giant circular Braider, the largest of its kind in Europe, which automatically weaves up to 288 individual strands of high strength carbon fibre to create hollow 3D shapes (or geometries), for products such as pipes or aircraft propellers.

The Overmoulder, meanwhile, shows how composite components can be mass-produced at rate. This would enable carmakers, for example, to use more of the technology in mainstream vehicles, making them lighter and more durable. These are key considerations given the long-term shift towards electrification and, beyond that, new models of shared ownership where cars will be expected to do vast mileages.

The NCC has also rethought how completed composite parts are tested for quality control. This is currently a slow and expensive process, typically involving the destruction of the part being examined. In response, NCC engineers have commissioned two, three metre high robots that work in unison, either side of the component, to beam ultrasound down high-pressure water jets. The system then measures the time taken for sound to travel through the part, alerting operators to any anomalies.

The iCAP Programme was funded by the Aerospace Technology Institute, the Local Enterprise Partnership and High Value Manufacturing Catapult.

Fibre2Fashion News Desk (SV)

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