The FIBERS Consortium outlines a plan for growing composites manufacturing in the U.S.

Growing U.S. composites manufacturing requires the development of a strategic plan derived from input from all of the key stakeholders. In 2014, the National Institute of Science and Technology (NIST) funded a project critical to that growth, and the FIBERS Consortium (Facilitating Industry By Engineering, Roadmapping and Science) was born.

The FIBERS Consortium is headed by five U.S. universities with composites manufacturing expertise: Iowa State University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, University of Delaware, University of Massachusetts Lowell and University of New Hampshire. These universities have worked with companies of all sizes across the supply chain – from raw materials to field-service applications – to compile a comprehensive roadmap of growth opportunities and associated challenges within the U.S. composites manufacturing industry. ACMA also was a key player, working hand-in-hand with the FIBERS Consortium to facilitate its mission.

To understand the U.S. composites industry and develop a sound growth strategy, the FIBERS team explored the industry through online surveys, regional workshops attended by more than 200 people, site visits to several manufacturing facilities and participation in professional conferences. The first online survey, completed by more than 350 industry professionals in November 2014, focused on prioritization of industry challenges. The second, completed by more than 80 people in November 2015, focused on prioritization of actions.

This article provides an overview of some of the findings of the FIBERS roadmapping activities related to processing methods, materials, predictive modeling and workforce development. An expanded list of topics and additional details will be available in a final report that will be submitted to NIST in the coming months.

Advancing Processing Methods

Currently, raw material conversion and polymer matrix composite processing consists of manual and automated methods with varying levels of process monitoring and control. During company visits, the FIBERS team discovered that current manufacturing trends include heavy use of liquid composite molding, out-of-autoclave molding, flexible and hard automation, and thermoplastic materials.

A major opportunity/challenge for the industry is to develop new and innovative manufacturing processes. Understanding the physics associated with a processing method is paramount to developing the innovations that can lead to reduced costs and increased throughput rates, and thereby provide a pathway for the U.S. to become a leader in composites. Advances in composite manufacturing, nondestructive evaluation, bonding and repair, and recycling are crucial for the successful and accelerated adoption of composites beyond high-end aerospace markets and for the expanded use of composites in wind. In the 2014 survey, two of the six most important challenges identified were reducing variability in processing and new-process development. Likewise, a vast majority of respondents in 2015 indicated that new processes are required for growth.