“The liftgates were shipped to our factory in Chattanooga, Tenn., and have been successfully painted using the paint line,” he adds. “That was a huge development from this project. We are able to run this component through the paint line like we can do with a steel part.”

Inside the Press

Mainka notes that SURF provides a unique opportunity for the industry to test new production methods in a setting that is very close to production ready. “Using this resource makes it possible to evaluate new production processes without interfering with current production in our plants,” he says. However, the team at SURF is constantly examining its processes to move composite manufacturing in new directions. This includes work to better understand the science behind material technologies.

“There isn’t a whole lot of dedicated science behind actually making a full-scale part,” says Skop, who previously worked for a Tier 1 supplier. “It’s a lot of getting the right ‘feel’ from the engineers in the plant. What we’re trying to do here is to bring it to more of a science than an art form.”

Today, Skop says, IACMI researchers are using SURF to remove some of the unknowns at play within the compression molding process. This work is meant to help engineers troubleshoot production in the event of material issues. “Every once in a while, you get things that just don’t make sense, where the material is not reacting how you think it should and there’s not a lot of data to explain it,” Skop says.

To this end, IACMI is working with researchers at Purdue University on a project to validate closed mold simulations to better understand what happens in the press and within tools as composite materials cure. The team runs an experiment on SURF’s small 75-ton compression molding equipment and then compares the data gleaned from that test to the simulations Purdue is running on the same tool geometry. In validating this part on a small scale, researchers can tailor the charge pattern on a full-size part to reduce weak areas when utilizing discontinuous fiber materials or create the best possible fit within the parameters of a manufacturable part.

“A lot of people see compression molding as you put some material in and it goes into a tool that’s like this ‘black box’ and then, poof, a part comes out,” Skop says. Understanding what happens to the material while in the tool has the potential to provide a lot of insight. If a material flows 10 inches versus 5 inches, how does that affect its strength? How does that affect its ability to be knit into another material?