With widespread adoption of composites, the need for faster, cheaper and more robust processing methods become critical for high-volume, low-cost production scenarios. Cost and sustainability concerns are driving manufacturers to reduce the amount of raw materials, waste, energy and consumables associated with processing. Recycling technologies, including pyrolysis and solvolysis, are being developed to reclaim expensive fibers from scrap and end-of-life parts. Raw materials (fiber, resin, core) are currently expensive, have highly variable processing requirements and can exhibit final performance properties that are highly dependent on the processing conditions. Companies and the U.S. government recognize the need for rapid, low-cost carbon fiber production, which was identified as one of the most important action items in the 2015 survey. Two-thirds of respondents cited the need for new resins to reduce processing time and lower per-part cost.

The need for shorter process cycle times and lower labor costs is driving industry toward automation. As a result, automation is expected to grow in all composite manufacturing sectors over the next 15 years, with high penetration especially in automotive and aerospace.

Despite increased market demand and opportunities for advanced composites, significant challenges exist in the U.S. for replacing traditional engineering metal alloys with composites. The following four primary challenges were identified in the 2015 survey in order of importance:

  • Reduce cycle time
  • Reduce material/part variability
  • Mitigate waste
  • Expand the workforce that is trained in the design of composite structures and the design of associated manufacturing processes for those structures – especially for complex part geometries

Nondestructive evaluation methods, including ultrasonic imaging and acoustic emissions need to be widely used as a means of quality control during manufacturing. A common concern by many small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) visited by the FIBERS team was that capital equipment, engineering, energy and material costs are too high. Unlike some industries that recognize the benefits of research collaboration, such as the semiconductor industry, fears about intellectual property protection are forcing many companies to duplicate research and development or use outdated processes and approaches. Smaller firms are also faced with limited to no access to new equipment and analysis capabilities, thereby limiting their ability to explore and justify the cost of new-process adoption.

Research investments devoted to cost reduction and increased productivity are priorities for development of new processing methods. Industry, academia, government agencies and non-profit associations should collaborate on the following:

  • Development of low-cost carbon fiber manufacturing processes to accelerate non-aerospace applications
  • Development and implementation of robust predictive modeling, non-destructive evaluation and smart automation capabilities
  • Development of methods to mitigate or eliminate part defects, followed by implementation of more process control and reduction of incoming raw material variation from the supply chain
  • Demonstration of technologies necessary in automation and robotics, process sensing, monitoring and control, and process simulation
  • Adoption of lean manufacturing principles

The federal government should:

  • Increase funding to train both engineers and technicians in composites manufacturing
  • Provide long-term support for R&D activities to assist the U.S. composites manufacturing industry to be on par with foreign competitors – especially in the European Union, where government support for composites is very high
  • Share Department of Defense knowledge in composites manufacturing automation with U.S. industry
  • Set up regional technology centers with process and simulation capabilities and technical support services for use by SMEs

Without significant movement on these items, many industry applications will struggle to adopt composites into their design. Collaboration among industry, academia and the government are critical for successful development and implementation of game-changing processes in the U.S. composites industry.