Autoclave composite panel production
A new R&D project underway in Prestwick, Scotland could make manufacturing components like wind turbine blades and car panels much more cost-effective.
The initiative – which involves Spirit AeroSystems working with the University of Strathclyde, supported by CENSIS - has found a new, more cost-effective method of producing composite parts, replacing the traditional autoclave ‘curing’ process with an intelligent and tailored heating tool.
In an industrial context, autoclaves are vessels used to process materials in a mould at high pressures and temperatures. They typically ‘cure’ high-performance components, placing the part in a vacuum within an autoclave and then applying a combination of pressure and heat during a pre-determined cycle.
Normally, these parts are cured for a standard period of time, at a set temperature, regardless of how they are responding to the curing process. The consortium in Prestwick has improved on this by creating a tool that removes the need for an autoclave, which typically represents around US$4m in upfront capital expenditure, while allowing users to monitor and match a cure cycle to a component’s geometric characteristics and how it is reacting to the process.
The initiative has also developed a new capability in the UK for a number of supply chains. Depending on a component’s geometry, the project could reduce operating costs by as much as 50%, through reduced CAPEX, factory space and energy consumption, while cutting cycle times by up to 40%.
Stevie Brown, lead engineer at Spirit’s Advanced Technology Centre in Prestwick, explained: “Instead of curing components at a standard temperature for hours at a time, we can now tailor the cycle time to match individual part geometries. The autoclave has been a bottleneck in manufacturing lines, and removing it will reduce cycle times for components, cut production costs and decrease energy consumption.”
Christos Tachtatzis, lecturer – principal investigator from the University of Strathclyde’s Department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering, commented: “This initiative is about bringing engineering solutions to industrial challenges: tracking of the progression of the curing process during the manufacture of high-value components is a big gap in manufacturers’ knowledge.
“The consortium has developed a multi-zone heated tool with advanced control of the curing for individual parts, allowing for geometry-driven cure cycles and better decision making. The optimisation of the composite curing process has been a long-term goal for a range of industries and this solution has the potential to revolutionise the sector.
“The knowledge exchange between both organisations has been key to the success of the development. The project will continue for another year at least, giving us the opportunity to mature the technology further towards the productisation phase. The new approach to curing has huge potential in any industries that rely on composite materials.”
CENSIS supported the collaboration with £50,000 of funding, as well as project management and monitoring expertise from its team. CENSIS’s portfolio of more than 90 projects, currently worth £14m in activity, is expected to deliver an estimated £98m in Gross Value Added for the Scottish economy in the coming years.Spiti
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