2014 JEC Europe REVIEW2014-06-01

The composites world met again in paris, vibrant, stronger, and more forward-looking than ever before.

The 2014 edition of JEC Europe (March 11-13, Paris, France) was the biggest and busiest iteration of the show yet, with more than 1,200 exhibitors and, according to show organizer JEC Group (Paris, France), 32,000 attendees passing through the doors. Spread for the first time across two floors at the Paris Expo’s Porte de Versailles exhibition center, the event proved, again, the dynamism, creativity and ingenuity of the composites industry. (JEC is considering adding a third floor in 2015.) HPC was there and offers this glimpse of the materials and technology highlights. (HPC presents a sampling of new products from the show, here.)

The shape of things to come

Clear from the first day were several trends that show all the earmarks of transforming the way composites industry suppliers and parts fabricators approach their common goals in the future. Significant among them were the following:

Snap-cure resins: A molding system is only as fast as its resin, and it was clear at JEC that materials suppliers are getting that message. Dow Automotive (Schwalbach, Germany and Auburn Hills, Mich.) introduced VORAFORCE 5300, a low-viscosity epoxy for resin transfer molding (RTM) that offers a sub-90-second cycle time, and claims that 60-second cycles are within reach. Henkel (Toulouse, France and Bay Point, Calif.), Momentive Specialty Chemicals (Columbus, N.Y.), Cytec Industries (Woodland Park, N.J.), Huntsman Advanced Materials (The Woodlands, Texas), Gurit (Isle of Wight, U.K.) and Bayer MaterialScience (Levekusen, Germany) were all on hand with thermoset materials in the same cycle-time range, for RTM, pultrusion, infusion and compression molding processes. Although most were developed with the auto industry’s part-per-minute production standard in mind, aerospace composites manufacturers who are seeking to reduce cost and rely less on capital-intensive autoclave processes were taking note.

Thermoplastic-friendly carbon fiber: Carbon fiber-reinforced thermoplastics: Fokker Aerostructures (Hoogeveen, the Netherlands) pioneered the use of glass fiber-reinforced thermoplastics more than a decade ago with Airbus (Toulouse, France) on the wing leading edges of its A330-340 and, later, A380 commercial jets. Now carbon fiber-reinforced thermoplastics (CFRTPs) are finding increased use in aerospace and automotive applications. Fokker explored this new territory in the JEC Innovation Awards display, with a CFRTP fuselage panel demonstrator. Although the part was not an award winner, Fokker’s R&D director Arnt Offringa told HPC that the panel comprises a carbon fiber/PEEK prepreg provided by Cytec Aerospace Materials (Tempe, Ariz). The panel is layed up in a female tool, with the vertical stringers placed first and the skin placed on top via automated tape laying (ATL). The skin and stringers are cocured, after which the horizontal frames are induction welded (see close-up image of stringer and frame intersection at left). Fokker is part of the Thermoplastic Affordable Primary Aircraft Structure (TAPAS) consortium, which is entering its second phase of life and is working with Airbus and other suppliers to develop thermoplastic aerostructures for real-world application.

The SGL Group (Wiesbaden, Germany) and Toho Tenax (Wuppertal, Germany and Rockwood, Tenn.) each introduced at JEC Europe a new carbon fiber sizing optimized for thermoplastic resins. Toho Tenax VP of sales Greg Olson said the sizing is formulated for use with PEEK (polyetheretherketone) in aerocomposites, but he added that the company also is looking at oil and gas and medical applications. He notes that the new sizing does not burn off during processing and is compatible with weaving or braiding. The company is working on additional sizings for use with other thermoplastics.

Engineered plastics supplier Victrex plc (Cleveleys, Lancashire, U.K.) reported success in the commercial aircraft market since Airbus qualified is VICTREX PEEK 90HMF40 in the summer of 2013 along its entire supply chain.

Reinforced with high-modulus fibers, the polymer is a reportedly easily processed, high-flow material that results in parts with a high modulus. It delivers several key benefits standard grades cannot — up to 100 times longer fatigue life and up to 20 percnet greater specific strength and stiffness compared to aluminum 7075-T6 under the same conditions.

Used the material to produce brackets for structural aircraft components that, using thermoset composites, take several hours to produce, Bristol, R.I.-based Tri-Mack Plastics Mfg. Co. reportedly achieved manufacturing cycle times measured in mere minutes. “That speed, paired with the ability to recycle the material for other applications, takes us to a whole new level of processing efficiency that isn’t achievable with thermosets,” said Tri-Mack’s director of sales Tom Kneath.

The snap-cure and carbon fiber/thermoplastics trends made it was all the more noteworthy that Paul Mackenzie, VP research and technology at U.S. based aerospace carbon fiber and prepreg supplier Hexcel (Stamford, Conn.), introduced a new high-modulus carbon fiber (HexTow HM63), a new epoxy (HexPly M92) and, notably, a new snap-cure prepreg epoxy targeted toward automotive applications. Characterized as a response to thermoplastics’ incursions into automotive molding, HexPly M77 offers a two-minute cure. (Detailed data for Hexcel’s new materials are available here.)

Shortly after the JEC show, Fokker Landing Gear (FLG, Helmond, The Netherlands), part of Fokker Technologies (Papendrecht, The Netherlands) and the Dutch National Aerospace Laboratory (NLR) announced that they had signed a Letter of Intent to establish a highly automated, state-of-the-art manufacturing facility for composite landing gear components at NLR’s site in Marknesse. The 500m2 (5,382 ft2) facility is scheduled to be operational in third-quarter 2014, and will continue to refine technology that FLG and NLR have been developing since 1995.

In 2001, they were the first to flight test an F-16 composite landing gear drag brace, and in 2010, received a contract with United Technologies Aerospace Systems (UTAS, Charlotte, N.C., previously Goodrich Landing Gear) for the development and qualification of a composite drag brace for the F-35 Lightning II main landing gear. (See “Complex Composites Lighten NATO Copter,” and “2011 International Paris Air Show,” under Editor’s Picks,” at top right.

The technology going into production includes braided carbon fiber preforms with additional placed plies of unidirectional fabrics at cutouts and high load areas and resin transfer molding (RTM) using high-toughness epoxy resin with a six to eight hour cycle time. The drag brace (or trailing arm) structures comprise 20mm to 55mm (0.8-inch to 2-inch) thick laminates, designed to withstand 140J/103 ft-lb of impact energy.

FLG’s composite components are targeted to reduce weight by up to 30 percent and be cost-competitive with aluminum but with lead times a fraction of those for high strength steel (HSS) and titanium forgings, which can be up to two years. Other benefits include improved manufacturability, lower operational and maintenance costs (aluminum and HSS have corrosion and maintenance issues), improved damage tolerance, and noise reduction. FLG reportedly understands the pros and cons of both metals and composites, having manufactured and serviced all types of landing for over 30 years, including units for the F-16 fighter jet, the Boeing Apache AH-64 helicopter, and the Bombardier Dash 8 Q400 turboprop commuter aircraft.

With interest in carbon fiber/thermoplastic applications so high, pre-show rumors of yet another new PAN-based carbon fiber manufacturer piqued HPC interest. The rumors proved untrue, but HPC found that the subject of the rumors, UHT Unitech C. Ltd. (Zhongli, Taiwan), established in 2011, offers not a new fiber but a graphitization service for composites fabricators who purchase T700-grade PAN-carbon fiber from existing manufacturers. UHT Unitech’s president, Ben Wang, gave a presentation at JEC, describing the company’s business model. Briefly, Wang’s process unspools PAN carbon fiber (3K to 48K) purchased from other sources, burns off the factory-applied sizing, then graphitizes it in Unitech’s patented 2000°C/3632°F microwave ovens, reapplies fiber sizing (Wang says he specializes in sizings compatible with thermoplastic resins for sporting goods and industrial applications) and re-spools the product. The result? Wang quips that “no one believes it” but he says he can deliver the equivalent of T800 or T1000 fiber at 15 to 30 percent lower cost, because the microwave technology consumes 30 percent less energy than conventional graphitization ovens and processes fiber 50 percent faster. Further, he claims his process generates no water or air pollution. Most intriguing, he says test results indicate that his UT800 and UT1000 products are roughly equivalent to those now on the market. He also emphasized that he’s not planning to engage in spinning or carbonization of raw PAN fiber and is willing to partner with other carbon fiber manufacturers interested in adapting his microwave process.

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