“Once we have a better picture of what it looks like in the tool, we can start dialing in and optimizing parameters,” Skop says.

The SURF technical team is in the early stages of working with colleagues at Purdue, along with Volkswagen and material suppliers, to develop insight into pressing parameters for a range of materials within a co-molding method. The goal is to determine how to maintain good interface strength and co-mingling properties of continuous materials with discontinuous materials.

As Skop explains, continuous fiber materials can provide significantly greater properties than discontinuous materials, but come with drawbacks in part design and consolidation. “We’re looking at how we can bring those two types of materials together – continuous and discontinuous – to achieve the design and molding flexibility of an SMC (discontinuous format), but utilize the strength of prepreg materials (continuous format) as well,” Skop says.

Future Innovation

With the Ford and VWGoA projects completed, SURF is ready to move forward. In July, the DOE Vehicle Technologies Office granted two $7.5 million awards, one to Ford and one to General Motors, both of which SURF will support. The Ford team, in collaboration with Oak Ridge National Laboratory, will develop multifunctional composite structures with electronics integration for cross car beam applications.

As Boeman points out, SURF’s work thus far has been driven by weight-saving benefits, but there’s tremendous opportunity for improving component multifunctionality. For instance, components such as liftgates and cross car beams can be embedded with sensors or wiring harnesses, which in turn support simplified assembly. “By the nature of molding with conformable materials, you have the ability to look at creative engineering solutions,” Boeman says.

The General Motors team will develop FRP composites for high-volume manufacturing of structural battery enclosures using compression molding technologies. Boeman points out that hybrid molding technologies – which might be hybridization with metal inserts within composites or of low-cost discontinuous products merged with continuous fiber inserts – also hold great promise.

SURF is also supporting companies like BASF in moving novel applications forward. “We have a lot of startups come to us that are interested in learning about composites or don’t have the equipment for development,” Skop says. It’s up to Skop and his team to help those companies identify – or create – the solutions that can achieve the desired performance requirements.