National Composites Centre Opens New R&D Facility

The Uk’s National Composites Centre has opened the doors to the latest phase of its advanced composite manufacturing facility. Part laboratory, part factory, the new space is the result of a two-year, £36.7m research and development programme to harness the power of new digital technologies.

The global market for composites is predicted to be worth $105.8bn in 2020 and growing at 6.5% per year. In the UK alone, the value of composites is expected to reach c. £12.5bn by 2030.

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 6 pairs of wings per month. The market requires 100. Meeting this need means radically re-thinking how these wings are made.

For the past two years, a team comprised of 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 are 10 ground-breaking new machines which redefine the ‘state of the art’ for composite manufacturing.

The stars of the new facility are 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 5m wide strips of composite material, up to 20m long, in one precise movement. This could cut the number of fabric components required from c.100,000 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.