Robert R. Lacovara, CCM, CCT-I, has been in the composites industry for more than 30 years, and he thinks composites manufacturing is at a crossroads. Traditional methods and thinking may facilitate the status quo, he says, but “real transformation is necessary to meet the challenges of our time.” Lacovara is president of Convergent Composites, a consultancy that provides the composites industry with services and insight. From 1989-2009, he was director of Technical Services for ACMA, the originator of the association’s Certified Composites Technician (CCT) program, and former ACMA president.

At COMPOSITES 2013, Lacovara will be leading the educational session, “Why Aerospace Out-of-Autoclave Processing is Good for the General Composites Industry,” on Wednesday, January 30, from 2:00-2:45 p.m.

The Boeing 787 Dreamliner is the world’s first large commercial jetliner with a fuselage made primarily of carbon fiber composite rather than aluminum, making the plane significantly lighter and more durable. Boeing says the Dreamliner is 20 percent more fuel-efficient than comparable models and predicts the firm will save millions of dollars in maintenance costs because composites don’t corrode. How does Boeing’s success serve as a backdrop to your educational session at COMPOSITES?

There is a major paradigm shift occurring in the design and manufacturing of commercial aircraft. Traditional metal designs, which have been used to construct airliners for years, are developing into composites designs. Our industry is at the leading edge and making its way into flight-critical applications, and there’s a projection for huge future demand of composites in the aircraft industry. But production rates are going to have to increase three or four times over what they are now. The issue I’m bringing up at COMPOSITES is that most structural components in the aircraft industry have traditionally been manufactured with autoclave processing, which is expensive. There aren’t enough autoclaves available to accommodate the increase in production rates the aircraft industry is going to require. At the same time, new manufacturing methods are available that can produce aerospace-like properties at lower costs. Those methods present a huge opportunity for the composites industry.

What manufacturing methods will you discuss during your educational session at COMPOSITES?

The presentation will highlight progressive closed molding techniques and out-of-autoclave processes. The aerospace composites folks are looking at vacuum-infusion processing, several versions of resin-transfer molding and also vacuum-bagged-only prepreg processing. What’s of particular interest to the general composites industry is vacuum infusion and resin-transfer molding. Vacuum-infusion is being used in several different forms in the industry. The intriguing thing about this is companies are producing composites with the same or nearly the same properties as very expensive autoclave-process products. This is good news for the composites industry, but it’s also a challenge: A number of applications that once were constrained to autoclave processing are now opening up to a broader spectrum of composites manufacturing. So rather than being required to have a multimillion-dollar autoclave, more companies can manufacturer structural components within their economic means.