The composites industry is thriving on the back of rising demand in high-tech markets such as aerospace and other segments including sporting goods and building engineering. Its surge is also expected to be driven by demand for lightweight, fuel-efficient vehicles and the emerging shift towards electric cars.

This is the prediction made at the JEC Composites Connect virtual fair by María Eugenia Rodríguez, director of the Eurecat technology centre’s Composites Technology Unit. She thinks that “component manufacturers’ greater awareness of strict government regulations on emissions control is also an opportunity for the composites market to grow.”

There are “three major challenges in the automotive industry for composites which are cost, production rate and sustainability,” she points out. “Design optimisation, developing sustainable materials, designing optimised moulds and tooling, streamlined production processes and recycling and recovery are crucial to reduce their environmental impact and also to cut costs.”

“All actors in the value chain need to engage” in order to achieve this as “it is the only way we will get to see lightweight, sustainable and affordable vehicles in the short to medium term.”

Composites 4.0, a forward-looking solution

“Composites’ unique features and properties mean businesses in many industries are keen to replace other materials with composites.” This means they have to introduce or retrofit their production processes to “enable them to manufacture composite components with the same reliability and quality as you get with conventional materials.”

Although composites “are strategic materials for the main production sectors as weight reduction is one of their priorities, there are significant constraints in terms of production speed, reliability of manufacturing processes and costs.” This calls for the integration of “technical developments based on Composites 4.0 concepts in order to largely resolve these hurdles and explore their full potential.”

Against this backdrop, applying Industry 4.0 in composites manufacturing consists mainly of automation and digitalisation of processes to make them more productive and efficient. This involves a wide range of digital capabilities including sensors for capturing and transmitting information, the Internet of Things, cognitive and cloud-based computing, physical process tracking and monitoring and decision support systems.

Large-scale projects for the aeronautics sector with huge potential in the automotive industry

In this scenario, Eurecat is completing WINFRAME 4.0 and COFRARE 2020, two large-scale R&D projects in the aeronautics industry under the CleanSky2 call. Their main goal is out-of-autoclave manufacturing of regional aircraft fuselage components in thermoplastic and thermoset composites.

Eurecat has been fully involved right across both projects by leading the design and manufacture of the moulds and tooling and the manufacture of the RTM and compression demonstrators. Industry 4.0 concepts have been drawn on to achieve the milestones such as simulation tools to study the behaviour of the moulds during the process and sensors for process tracking and monitoring. The deliverables and knowhow generated in these two projects can be extrapolated to other sectors such as the automotive industry by tailoring both technologies to the sector’s specific production, materials and cost requirements.