Microwaves to speed up production of aerospace components

A new initiative aiming to drastically reduce the time required to make complex composite aerospace components has been launched with the award of a prestigious EPSRC High Value Manufacturing Catapult Fellowship.

Richard Day, Professor of Composites Engineering, Glyndŵr University.
Richard Day, Professor of Composites Engineering, Glyndŵr University.

Professor Richard Day will work with the University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre with Boeing (AMRC) and the National Composites Centre in Bristol (NCC) to develop microwave technology that industry could use to cut curing times, energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.

Day is Professor of Composites Engineering at Wrexham-based Glyndŵr University and an expert on the rapid manufacturing of composites, critical for the next generation of aircraft.

He founded the North West Composites Centre at Manchester University before joining Glyndŵr University in 2010, where he helped form the Advanced Composites Training and Development Centre with Airbus in Broughton, Flintshire.

The academic will work closely with both the AMRC and NCC to develop microwave ovens as an alternative to conventional technology, using autoclaves – ovens that heat components under pressure.

Researchers have been using microwaves to cure composites for some years, but have yet to develop robust processes that could be implemented by industry to make geometrically complex parts, as opposed to flat panels.

The autoclave at Beagle Aerospace
The autoclave at Beagle Aerospace.

Day commented: “I am delighted to be awarded this fellowship which will allow me to be embedded in two prestigious research centres and to take the results of my research from the laboratory into production.”

The four year research programme will explore and overcome manufacturing problems associated with microwave curing, before going on to make complex aerospace components, identical to those used in aircraft.

He continued: “We have a number of plans for developing the microwave curing of composites over the next four years, taking it from the laboratory and turning it into a robust industrial process.

“It takes a long time to cure composites by conventional means and using microwaves significantly increases the speed.

“The use of composites by the aerospace industry, in particular, is going from strength to strength. More than 50% of some aircraft are now composite and that has put pressure on the supply chain all of a sudden.”

The National Composites Centre in Bristol was opened today (Nov 24)
The National Composites Centre (NCC) in Bristol.

AMRC Composite Centre manager, Richard Scaife noted: “We see this fellowship as a strategic collaboration to further microwave technology in the UK.

“The collaboration will enable the UK to remain at the forefront of microwave processing of composite materials. We’re very pleased to have Richard on board and look forward to a fruitful collaboration with all partners.”

NCC collaborative research manager, Dan Kells said: “We have been aware of the potential for microwave curing for a number of years. We hope that this fellowship will develop microwave curing so that it can become a real industrial process. This in turn will enable composites to continue to compete as a major structural material for aircraft and other applications.”