Manufacturing high value components made easier

Manufacturing a range of high value components, from wind turbine blades to car panels, could become significantly more cost-effective and quicker thanks to a ground-breaking R&D project underway in Prestwick, Scotland.

High value components - Autoclave composite panel production - image courtesy of the Scottish Innovation Centre for Sensor and Imaging Systems (CENSIS).
Autoclave composite panel production – image courtesy of the Scottish Innovation Centre for Sensor and Imaging Systems (CENSIS).

A consortium has reportedly found a new, more cost-effective method of producing composite parts, replacing the traditional autoclave “curing” process with an intelligent and tailored heating tool.

The initiative involves Spirit AeroSystems working in collaboration with the University of Strathclyde, and is supported by £50,000 of funding, as well as project management and monitoring expertise, from CENSIS, the Scottish Innovation Centre for Sensor and Imaging Systems.

In an industrial context, autoclaves are vessels used to process materials in a mould at high pressures and temperatures. They typically “cure” high value or performance components, placing the part in a vacuum within an autoclave and then applying a combination of pressure and heat during a pre-determined cycle – typically two hours at the cure temperature.

The result is a high-strength, lightweight part for use in a range of high-value manufacturing sectors, predominantly aerospace.

Normally, these parts are cured for a standard period of time, at a set temperature, regardless of how they are responding to the curing process.

The consortium in Prestwick has improved on this by creating a tool that removes the need for an autoclave, which typically represents around £3m in upfront capital expenditure, while allowing users to monitor and match a cure cycle to a component’s geometric characteristics and how it is reacting to the process.

Not only has the initiative created a unique curing process, it has also developed an entirely new capability in the UK for a number of supply chains. Depending on a component’s geometry, the project could reduce operating costs by as much as 50%, through reduced CAPEX, factory space and energy consumption, while cutting cycle times by up to 40%.

Stevie Brown, lead engineer at Spirit’s Advanced Technology Centre in Prestwick, explained: “Instead of curing components at a standard temperature for hours at a time, we can now tailor the cycle time to match individual part geometries. The autoclave has been a bottleneck in manufacturing lines, and removing it will reduce cycle times for components, cut production costs and decrease energy consumption.”

Christos Tachtatzis, lecturer – principal investigator from the University of Strathclyde’s Department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering, added: “The consortium has developed a multi-zone heated tool with advanced control of the curing for individual parts, allowing for geometry-driven cure cycles and better decision making. The optimisation of the composite curing process has been a long-term goal for a range of industries and this solution has the potential to revolutionise the sector.

“The knowledge exchange between both organisations has been key to the success of the development. The project will continue for another year at least, giving us the opportunity to mature the technology further towards the productisation phase. The new approach to curing has huge potential in any industries that rely on composite materials.”

Craig Fleming, business development manager at CENSIS, added: “Not only is it a first for the UK, but the academic know-how provided by the University of Strathclyde is allowing Spirit’s Prestwick facility to lead the way globally; helping its operations in the US and beyond look at this new approach to component fabrication. It’s encouraging to see a Scottish manufacturing and assembly site set a new benchmark in global manufacturing capabilities.”