We tend to think of composites in terms of thermoplastics and wood laminates. Truth be told, the earliest records of large-scale composite use date back to 1,500 BC when Egyptians and Mesopotamians created a composite construction material using a mixture of mud and straw. Indeed, composite materials are older than most of us realize.
What is most impressive are all the technological advances that have carried us from the days of mud and straw buildings to modern commercial aircraft made largely with carbon fiber reinforced plastics (CFRPs). Composites manufacturing is constantly driven forward by emerging trends. Some of those trends have stuck, creating better composites as a result. Others have faded away.
So what are the biggest industry trends right now? Below are five of them, compliments of a CompositesWorld piece published in November 2019. This post will not go through all of the details, but it will highlight the most important aspects of each trend.
1. More Automation
Composite materials can be expensive to manufacture. Take carbon fiber, for example. According to Salt Lake City’s Rock West Composites, virgin carbon fiber is already expensive enough to produce thanks to its intense energy needs. Costs only go up when labor is added to fabrication.
Manufacturers are working to bring more automation into the process. If they can replace manual labor with automation, they can bring the final cost of composite materials down. They can also increase efficiency and uniformity at the same time.
2. More Additive Manufacturing
One of the ways to reduce manual labor is to introduce more additive manufacturing. What is additive manufacturing? It is essentially 3D printing. Find a way to print composite parts with a 3D printer and you eliminate almost all the manual labor of fabrication. Humans have to be involved only as far as coming up with designs and programming the printers. Automated printing handles everything else.
3. Eliminating the Autoclave
Fabricating with materials like carbon fiber and fiberglass usually requires autoclave curing to bond composite laminates. The problem is that autoclaves are cost prohibitive. They are expensive to obtain and require a tremendous amount of energy to operate. As such, the industry wants very much to eliminate the autoclave altogether. Getting rid of the autoclave would reduce costs and open the door to higher production volumes.
4. Adopting Digitization
Introducing composites manufacturing to digitization opens the door to advanced technologies like deep learning and artificial intelligence. Imagine being able to infuse the design process with such technologies. Previously unthinkable designs would begin emerging. Manufacturing processes would be more efficient. Finished products would be more uniform in all the most desired properties.
There is no arguing that digitization has revolutionized other industries. There is no reason it cannot do the same for composites. It is just a matter of getting the right technologies integrated in the right places.
5. Greater Emphasis on Thermoplastics
Composite materials are not limited to products like carbon fiber and fiberglass. Any material derived by combining two or more base materials is considered a composite. However, thermoplastics derived from carbon fiber and fiberglass are extremely attractive right now thanks to a number of properties including easy handling, easy storage, and adequate recycling capabilities.
There is no arguing the fact that modern society relies on composites of all kinds. From concrete to wood laminates, composites are all around us. The future of composites seems to reside in thermoplastics. And the future of thermoplastics is being driven by the trends described in this post. It will be interesting to watch and see just what the future holds.