The composites industry has been growing at CAGR of 11.1% over the last 10 years. Given the soft economy, this is truly standout performance. The largest markets for composites have been aerospace and military requirements. Last year’s estimate of shipments in these categories alone was 21.3 million pounds of finished parts. This isn’t counting the huge wind turbine blades and myriad of other emerging products based on the technology. Given the light weight of carbon fiber parts, that’s an extraordinary amount of material. And a finished value of $9 billion gives you an idea how expensive these parts are.
Composite parts, carbon or Kevlar, have amazing properties. Carbon fiber is typically 3 times stronger than titanium and 2.5 times lighter. And because the parts are made from layers of woven fibers, the layers can be oriented and stacked to produce stiffness in a specific direction. Jet engine fan blades are one of the bigger applications for composites.
The difficulty with is the process technology required to deliver these highly engineered parts. Epoxy resin chemistry requires high curing temperatures under vacuum to cure the epoxy and insure that there are no air bubbles in side the parts. Voids tend to cause mechanical failures when the part is subjected high load. So the common equipment for manufacturing is an autoclave which provides the heat and vacuum necessary for large volume parts.
If part are being made from flat woven fiber, as opposed to 3D woven, then each layer must be precisely cut from a roll of woven fabric. This requires a large scale X-Y laser cutting machine. CAD models identify all the layers and send them to cutting tables so that the parts can be cut in reverse order for stacking from continuous rolls of fabric.
Its simple in concept, but a great deal more involved in practice.
The demand for lightweight, high strength structural parts has been increasing. Many new car programs feature strategic use of the material. Demand just in the aerospace and military markets is expected to increase by more than 10 times in the next 10 years. With extraordinary revenue growth comes funding to develop lower cost variants which will help to support increasing sales. The motivation, of course, is to make money. That’s a good thing. Making money translates to people working and getting paid a decent wage.
Composite manufacturing also requires a lot of complex machinery. A simple 2 axis laser cutting machine that operates on a 6 foot gantry gets to be pretty complex when the material is woven fabric being fed to the cutter from a roll and having the fabric held steady by a vacuum table. Many composite parts are created using 3D weaving machines which must handle large numbers of flat fiber simultaneouly. 5 Axis CNC and Robotic milling machines are required to trim edge flashing on complex surfaces at high speed.
An industry that is forecast to grow by more than 10 times that is using a lot of mechatronics. A dream come true.