Advanced Composites: Revolutionizing the Manufacturing Industry?

carbon fiber mirror on a mclaren mp4-12c When the Manufacturing Innovation Blog wrote about five technical innovations shaking up advanced manufacturing, some of them were certainly to be expected. Additive manufacturing is a pretty buzzy keyword these days, as are IoT and cloud computing. There’s no doubt that these technologies are shaking up a wide variety of industries, many of which are increasingly recognizing advanced production capacities and capabilities as a result.

However, the MIB also wrote about the resurgence of advanced materials and composites as one of the most important new technologies in manufacturing today. Indeed, a report from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) notes that “almost all the megatrends or the future, energy efficiency or alternate energy devices, new materials to counter resource shortages, next-generation consumer devices, and new paradigms in chemical safety depend heavily on advanced materials.”

Here’s a bit of background. In the past, advanced composites have usually been incredibly expensive and restricted to use in high-cost applications like military vehicles or satellites, for example. Lately though, as the report notes, the government and manufacturing partnerships have been working actively to cut costs and make these composites more widely applicable for machined products.

What is an advanced composite, anyway? Well, it’s a sort of blanket term that covers a pretty wide variety of materials. If you’re new to the study of composites, the FAA actually has a pretty good chapter on them in their handbook (check out Chapter 7 here). Essentially, any advanced polymer matrix composite is deemed an advanced composite material.

We humans are getting talented at manipulating materials to reinforce specific physical or chemical properties (for example, making a lightweight material with a high stiffness and strength, or a flexible material with an outstanding temperature and chemical resistance). In aircraft, this makes sense because composites are often lighter and more flexible than plain old steel, reducing aircraft weight and allowing the machine to fly more efficiently.

Lately, the government has really begun to invest in these types of materials through the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation Institute with the goal of lowering carbon fiber-reinforced polymer manufacturing cost and creating innovative.

The key here is “lightweight.” What if you could make lightweight vehicles with a record-breaking fuel economy? Lighter and longer wind turbine blades? High-pressure tanks for natural gas-fueled cars? The Institute says that with a 10% weight reduction, fuel efficiency rises by 6-8% for internal combustion engine vehicles. Rather than changing the type of fuel per se, the Institute wants to use composites to help vehicles use fuel more efficiently.

Another composite making news headlines is transparent wood, which has more direct consumer friendly application for many consumers. Scientists at the University of Maryland, College Park have engineered an invisible wood that’s not only sturdier than traditional wood, but can be used in place of less environmentally friendly materials, like plastics. “Potentially, the wood could be made to match or even exceed the strength of steel per weight, with the added benefit that the wood would be lighter in weight,” explains developer Dr. Lianbang Hu.

From woods to carbon polymers, there won’t be many industries that aren’t touched by advanced composites sometime in the near future. If you’re interested in learning more about composite materials that could change the way you manufacture product, be sure to let us know or leave a comment in the section below!

photo credit: McLaren Palo Alto 12C silver mirror DSC_0434 via photopin (license)

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