The automotive industry continues to roil, focused on vehicle lightweighting, effectiveness and cost savings. According to one industry veteran, this process is not new. In fact, George Epstein believes the automotive industry could learn a thing or two from the mistakes and experiences of the aerospace industry, especially when it comes to composites.

Epstein has more than 60 years of experience in engineering with composites, plastics and adhesives. He began his career in the early 1950s as a graduate research assistant at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He was responsible for conceiving and initiating the three-year Air Force R&D program conducted by General Dynamics that established the viability of carbon fiber composites in space systems, which was first implemented to save weight in the antenna and support structures of the NATO communications satellites.

Gain confidence

“To ensure reliable performance, first, get qualification tests that go beyond automotive design requirements, then pass through an acceptance test and, when possible, use non-destructive tests as well.”

The aerospace industry spent years integrating more composites into its designs, which was not an easy task. The industry continues to develop new structural and nonstructural components by building on the qualifications of previous structures. During Epstein’s career, he helped implement composite materials for lightweight critical structures in space systems. Epstein says that in order to move forward, the automotive industry must prove that composite parts are viable and reliable. Investing in composites testing now will establish confidence and provide needed information for continued industry growth.

Adapt from failures

“While I was working with the Navy communications satellite program, we experienced a failure during one of our launches and I was appointed head of the failure investigation team. We discovered what the problem was but, equally important, realized the need for a ‘lessons learned’ program.”

The U.S. Air Force Manufacturing Problems Prevention Program (MP3) is a group that analyzes failures with composites, metals and other manufacturing problems in aerospace applications, and shares the information among Air Force prime contractors and subcontractors. Through collaboration, contractors explain manufacturing problems and the group discusses the best way to handle that scenario to prevent future design and manufacturing failures. Currently, the automotive industry has a number of consortiums for composites, including the Automotive Composite Consortium. However, Epstein states the industry could use a prevention program to manage issues in the field such as optimizing joints and attachments.

Training is the best adhesive

“I notice that most organizations put a huge emphasis on theory and analysis instead of application. The real need in the industry is to teach and train workers in the shop how to do the processing and how to handle the materials.”

After years of researching composite and adhesive-bonding failures, Epstein observed that most composite-bonding failures in aerospace applications resulted from poor surface preparation and contamination. Training workers about the correct techniques for manufacturing through hands-on training would limit failures in the automotive industry, consequently increasing OEM trust in the material. There are several training courses available for composite manufacturers, including ACMA’s Certified Composite Technician program.