Web Industries Inc. is giving a push to thermoplastic composites use in aerospace where thermosets now dominate.
Web has started up a new Thermoplastic Composite Development and Qualification Center at its recently expanded Suwanee, Ga., operation. The site, which Web calls its Atlanta operation, has begun formatting reinforced composites, in which Web produces kits of composite plies that airplane OEMs buy, then process to components for assembly.
“Airplane OEMs would like to convert 20 percent of their aircraft parts to thermoplastics,” said Kevin Young, Web's vice president of corporate development, in a phone interview.
“But the capacity is not there yet,” he added.
Currently there is only 5 percent of enough thermoplastic material manufacturing capacity for aircraft OEMs to convert from thermoset composites to thermoplastic composites, Young explained.
The new thermoplastics center is designed and equipped to both create and format thermoplastic pre-preg materials such as carbon-fiber-reinforced polyetherether ketone and polyphenylene sulfide resins. The center will also qualify the equipment that will process the new thermoplastic composite formats.
Web announced the new center at the recent Sampe trade show in Seattle.
The center includes slitting equipment that can cut materials into narrow tapes of 1 inch or smaller. A second slitter/winder precision cuts wide rolls into strips from 1 to 6 inches wide. Other machinery can chop materials into flakes for processing by compression molding. Seaming technology will be installed later this year. The center is located in Web's Composites Center of Excellence in Suwanee.
“The industry has long dreamed of having automated processing for thermoplastic composite manufacturing,” said Web business development manager Jim Powers in a news release.
“This is now feasible thanks to advancements in fabrication techniques. As a result, an increasing number of aircraft parts are being designed to use thermoplastics.”
Thermoplastic composite technology has evolved to the point that there is a strong desire among airplane makers like Boeing and Airbus to use them, according to Young.
Thermoplastics have some inherent advantages over thermosets in aerospace use, Web explained. They can be stronger, have higher heat and chemical resistance and lighter weight. These advantages can cut costs. Instead of having to fasten components with adhesives or metallic fasteners, thermoplastics can be assembled by thermal welding or co-consolidation.
“Our engineers, machine operators and technicians are all highly experienced people, many of whom were involved in thermoset format development and slit tape processing for the latest generation of commercial airliners,” Powers said.
Also in Suwanee, Web recently opened an aerospace-oriented ply cutting and kitting operation. Web says the operation complements similar Web facilities in Denton, Texas, and Montpelier, Vt. Addition of a third kitting and format plant gives aircraft OEMs another supply source and mitigates any risk of supply disruption from other facilities.
Web said in a news release that the new facility includes cutting tables, laser guidance equipment and quality control systems “that ensure every ply in a kit is in the correct order.” Formatting plies in a kit is similar to how a man's suit jacket is tailored, Young said. For a suit, cloth panels are cut and organized in the order of how they are sewn together.
Web invested $2 million in factory space, equipment and personnel to establish the new formatting and kitting unit. It includes new video systems positioned above the cutting tables to ensure every ply in a kit is in the correct order. The operation is part of Web's CAD Cut division. Web claims it is the only advanced formatting partner for aircraft with three formatting facilities.
Ben Winters, general manager for CAD Cut, said aircraft construction has a rosy future, and his company is poised to support the industry for the next decade.
“Boeing's mid-2016 current market outlook forecasts overall demand for nearly 40,000 new commercial airplanes during the next 20 years,” Winters said in a news release. Global passenger traffic is expected to grow 4.8 percent a year over the next 20 years.
Web's Composites Center of Excellence encompasses 225,000 square feet and has room for expansion.
Young said aircraft OEMs prefer suppliers to format kits that they need and deliver them just in time for assembly. It is costly for OEMs to do the work in house because cutting tables and related equipment are only needed sporadically, but they are fixed costs. Web operates freezers to keep the pre-preg kits stored in an uncured state until OEMs need them.
The Suwanee production area includes a controlled contamination area that meets the ISO 14644-1 Class 8 standard specifically developed for the aerospace industry.
Young said aerospace pre-pregs are sold for up to seven times the price of composites used in automotive applications.
Web is a diverse provider of flexible material converting and end-product manufacturing services for advanced composites, medical, health and hygiene, multi-layer insulation and wire and cable markets.