When you see huge equipment on construction sites, you probably assume you’re looking at a whole lot of steel on wheels. And you’d be right. But equipment manufacturers such as Caterpillar are transitioning many applications to composites – and saving money. One example is transmission covers. Caterpillar replaced a 9 millimeter thick steel plate with a compression molded SMC part and saved 25 to 40 percent on production costs.

“Our customers are driving the demand for performance and low cost,” said John F. Unser, CCT, a process control engineer for plastics/composites with Caterpillar. He led Wednesday’s CAMX educational session, “Plastics/Composites as a Low Cost Alternative for Heavy Duty Equipment.” One of the best ways to reduce costs is to decrease weight, but that may seem like an odd proposition for a company like Caterpillar.

“We make big, heavy-duty machinery,” said Unser. “So why do we care about weight? For one, every pound we reduce is a pound we can carry. The other reason is much of our equipment has to have counterbalances for lifting. If we save a pound on the front, we don’t have to add a pound on the back.” That’s where composites can help.

Unser said Caterpillar relies on a wide range of processing technologies to make composite parts, including hand layup, compression molding, filament winding, resin transfer molding and compression molding. For example, the company uses hand layup for lower volume parts and compression molding for non-cosmetic parts on the inside of machinery, such as fan shrouds. Caterpillar uses SMC compression molding for higher-volume products, including engine hoods and covers.

Unser then shared questions his company asks when deciding which of its products make good candidates for conversion from metal to composite.

  • Is it a structure with assemblies?
  • Is there an opportunity to consolidate parts?
  • Can we leverage similar parts across our product offerings?
  • Do we have an engineering team willing to make the conversion?