A newly created composites center in Dayton, Ohio, will bring together the leading minds in the automotive and aerospace industries to find ways to overcome cost hurdles facing use of structural composite parts.
The National Center for Composite Systems Technology will operate as a neutral, non-corporate site to fabricate new carbon-fiber composite parts. Officials hope to raise as much as $74 million from government, academic and corporate sponsors by September 1998 to fund the center's work.
The 200,000-square-foot facility, which is scheduled to open in mid-October, received a jump start in June when Detroit-based General Motors Corp. donated $1 million for equipment. The center has also received $15 million from the state of Ohio this spring.
On July 9, the center also was granted $7.2 million from the U.S. Air Force to develop manufacturing processes for aerospace composite parts.
The center's first mission will be to manufacture pickup truck beds, called boxes, from fiberglass-reinforced composite materials. The project has the financial backing of Big Three automotive makers, working through the federally funded U.S. Council for Automotive Research, an industry research center in Southfield, Mich.
The council's Automotive Composites Consortium has spent several years developing and testing materials for the pickup boxes. The consortium will use prototype parts made at the composite center in their research, said composite center President and Chairman Jon Miller.
Automakers are considering the use of plastic boxes because of their light weight, corrosion and noise resistance, styling flexibility. The center plans to produce as many as 200,000 pickup boxes by the end of 1998, Miller said.
However, the cost of using composites is considerably higher, both in materials and production cycle times, than steel. Carbon-fiber-based composites can cost as much as $9 per pound, compared to less than a dollar per pound for steel, and run at cycles of more than 10 minutes per part.
``Another outstanding issue is direct impact strength,'' said Joseph McDermott, an industry analyst with Composites Services Corp. in Cresskill, N.J. ``Even in existing aerospace applications, if a worker drops a hammer or screwdriver on a carbon-fiber composite ring, it can cause major damage. There are some considerable problems to overcome.''
Miller emphasized that the center will provide the grist for development rather than function as a research laboratory.
``Our premise is to act as a bridge between research and high-volume production of composite parts,'' Miller said. ``For instance, we can fabricate and demonstrate a truck box to the [composites consortium]. From there, we turn everything over to them to do what they'd like with it.''
Besides the automotive industry, the center also has financial and program support from the largest U.S. aircraft makers: McDonnell Douglas Corp. in St. Louis; Lockheed Martin Corp. in Calabasas, Calif.; Boeing Co. in Seattle; and Northrop Grumman Corp. in Los Angeles. Financial contributions were not disclosed.
Other participants include the Department of Energy and Department of Commerce.
In addition, Dayton-based Wright Laboratory and the University of Dayton Research Institute have signed on to assist with the pilot program.
The aerospace industry has yet to pinpoint an initial research project at the center, said Joseph Ennis, vice president of McDonnell Douglas' advanced systems technology prototype center.
Currently, carbon-fiber composites are used for over half of all structural components for both fighter and commercial planes, Ennis said.
However, while their performance ranks high, affordability has become a growing concern, he said.
``The whole world would be composites if it wasn't for their cost,'' Ennis said. ``To make a quantum change, you have to go outside the box, and we've got an interesting mix of players who can learn from each other.''
One goal of the aerospace industry is to transfer breakthroughs made with pickup truck beds to aircraft applications, Ennis said.
``It may permit us to design a product differently and build it differently,'' Ennis said.
The composite center will feature three injection presses ranging in clamping forces from 200-1,000 tons and capable of processing materials using structural reaction injection molding and compression molding, a common process for sheet molding compounds.
In addition, the center will offer a design center using Unigraphics software, five conference rooms with video conferencing capabilities and a 200-seat auditorium.
To make the plastic truck boxes, the center is using a programmable powdered preform process to spray carbon fibers onto a component. The proprietary technique was developed by Owens Corning, based in Toledo, Ohio, and is used by the Automotive Composites Consortium in their research.
The facility will be built in stages, with 80,000 square feet available in October and the entire facility operational by June 1998, Miller said.