Composites Design and Manufacture
An overview of composites manufacturing processes
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The manufacture of continuous fibre reinforced composites has been reviewed by a number of authors [1-12].  The International Standards ISO 12215 for small craft hull construction and scantlings define minimum requirements for materials, workshop and manufacturing and other arrangements.  The majority of high-performance composite components manufactured rely on thermosetting matrix system processes as described below, with thermoplastic matrix system processes described at §7 below.

Thermosetting resins are small molecules with reactive sites.  They are normally supplied as liquids and are cured (cross-linked to form a 3-D network) by the addition of chemicals (catalysts for unsaturated polyester and vinylester, or hardeners for epoxy resin).  Faster processing can be achieved by the addition of accelerators and/or increased temperatures.  The use of ultra-violet curing resin systems has been reviewed by Shukla et al [13].  The stages of cure are:

1   Gel coating

Gel-coats are the outer aesthetic and corrosion-resistant surface of a laminate.  It is normal practice to coat the mould tool with a gel-coat before commencing lamination, rather than painting the component after fabrication.  The laminate is then manufactured, before the gel-coat has fully cured, and bonds to the gel-coat.  During the gelling phase, volatile organic compounds (VOC), especially the styrene in unsaturated polyester or vinyl ester resins, escape into the workspace.  Rogers et al [14] have reviewed the potential for in-mould gel-coating (IMGC) as a route to improved workplace conditions and reduced environmental impact.  Di Tomasso et al [15] have demonstrated new IMGC processes that offer a reduction in average styrene emission levels of >98% (worst new/best old) with obvious benefits for worker health and the reduction of environmental burdens.

2   Contact moulding (hand lay-up and spray lamination)

For low performance components, spray (chopped fibres, Figure 1) and hand-lamination (all reinforcement forms) are often chosen because the raw materials are relatively inexpensive, the process uses relatively unskilled labour and the mould tools do not need to be vacuum tight.


Figure 1*: Spray deposition

For hand lamination (often referred to as bucket-and-brush, Figure 2), the resin is introduced to the reinforcement by either stippling for continuous random swirl reinforcements or brushing for fabric reinforcements.  A roller or “squeegee” may be used to thoroughly wet the reinforcement and encourage air bubbles to leave the laminate.  They are often referred to as consolidation rollers, but there is little evidence that they cause a significant increase in fibre volume fraction.  The laminates normally cure under standard workshop ambient conditions. However, these open mould processes produce composites with low fibre volume fractions and high levels of voids and/or porosity.  Nevertheless, statistics from the National Boat Show indicated an “increase from 4% to 80% between 1955 and 1972 in the proportion of boat hulls constructed in GRP [16, 17].


Figure 2*: Hand lamination

3   Vacuum bagging (VB), autoclave and compression moulding

For higher-performance composites, wet-lay-up or pre-impregnated (prepreg) materials can be enclosed in a vacuum bag and when the bag is evacuated, up to one bar of consolidation pressure is applied.  Wet lay-up with a multi-part resin system leaves the composite manufacturer open to errors in measurement and mixing.  For prepregs, the mixing is the responsibility of the prepreg materials supplier.  It is essential (a) to allow the prepreg to rise to ambient temperature before laminating to minimise moisture entrapment in the laminate, and (b) to respect the prepreg manufacturers recommendations for “shelf-life” (time in the freezer) and “out-life” (time out of the freezer for part cutting and kitting) especially when manufacturing safety critical structures.

For even higher performance, further external consolidation pressure can be applied to the bag in an autoclave [18-23].  Autoclave pressures might be up to 7 bar for thermosets or 14 bar for thermoplastics.  Louis and Ermanni [24] and Centea et al [25] have recently published reviews of out-of-autoclave prepregs and their processing.  Components can also be manufactured by compression moulding between matched tools in a press [26, 27].


Figure 3*: Vacuum bagging for cure in oven or autoclave

There is increasing interest in out-of-autoclave (OOA) processes, including vacuum bag-only (VBO) prepreg and resin infusion, to reduce manufacturing costs and cycle times.

4   Liquid composite moulding (RTM and RIFT)

Liquid Composite Moulding technologies, especially Resin Transfer Moulding (RTM) [28-26] have emerged as the most probable route to mass production for small-medium sized composite components of complex shape.  In RTM, a two- (or more) part mould is loaded with dry fibres, then resin flows into the fabric stack, before the resin cures to produce a solid component.  While RTM is appropriate for relatively small components, the mould closure forces become excessive as component size increases.


Figure 4*: Resin transfer moulding

One solution to this problem is to use only vacuum to drive long-range resin flow and enclose the laminate in a bag rather than in a matched pair of moulds.  This technique is known by various names, and/or the respective abbreviations/acronyms [37-44] including resin infusion under flexible tooling (RIFT), the Seeman Composites Resin Infusion Molding Process (SCRIMPTM) [45] and Vacuum-Assisted Resin Transfer Moulding (VARTM).  The technique is normally conducted without positive pressure, so that resin flow speeds are limited by the one atmosphere maximum pressure differential from full (low integer values in mbar) vacuum.  Summerscales and Searle [42] analysed the various options and produced a four-level taxonomy for the set of processes forming a continuum between RTM and VB:

  1. RIFT1: in-plane flow parallel to the layers of reinforcement
  2. RIFT2: through-plane flow from a flow medium or scored core
  3. RIFT3: resin film infusion (RFI)
  4. RIFT4: partially pre-impregnated materials (also known as “semi-preg”)


Figure 5*: Resin infusion under flexible tooling with a flow medium (RIFT II)

RFI uses un-reinforced B-staged resin film stacked with the dry reinforcement fabrics [46].  The process minimises the resin flow distance by utilising only through-thickness flow and uses the resin in a form where the base/hardener mix ratio is set by the materials supplier.  Commercial versions of this process are Carboform (Cytec), HexFITTM (Hexcel Composites), SPRINTTM (SP Systems) and ZPREG (Umeco, formerly Advanced Composites Group).

5   Automated processes (filament winding, AFP/ATL and pultrusion)

Automated processes [47] include filament winding [48-50], robot-assisted placement [51] including Automatic Fibre Placement (AFP) [52] and Automated Tape Laying (ATL) and pultrusion/pulforming [53-56].

Filament winding is used for production where the components normally have an axis of symmetry (e.g. masts, pipes or tanks).  The fibres are passed through a resin impregnation stage before being wound onto a rotating mould tool (mandrel) in a variety of orientations according to a pre-defined winding pattern.  McLarty [57] analysed the feasibility of filament winding on a hull shaped mandrel in such a way as to cover the mandrel with fibres at a variety of angles to yield a structure conforming to the contours of the mandrel.  The feasibility was verified by winding a 1/48 scale hull.  It was concluded that 62 metre ship hulls could be produced.  Chappelear et al [58] conducted further study toward the filament winding of a 46-metre glass reinforced plastics ship hull.  They reviewed winding machine and mandrel concepts and developed a 1/5 scale mandrel for the proposed mine sweeper-hunter (MSH) for the United States Navy.


Figure 6*: Filament winding of a mast section

Pultrusion is similar to extrusion in that the component is normally a constant cross-section profile.  In extrusion, the fibres would be broken into short lengths by the action of the extruder screw.  In pultrusion, continuous fibres are pulled through a resin impregnation stage, marshalled into the profile cross-section and passed through a heated die from which they emerge as the solid profile.  Pulforming is more appropriate for thermoplastics, or partially cured thermosets, and involves deliberate distortion of the pultruded section before final solidification.


Figure 7*: Pultrusion

6   Miscellaneous techniques  (tube rolling, machining, bonding and repair)

Tube rolling (mandrel wrapping) is a technique where prepreg blanks are formed onto a mandrel and consolidated normally using shrink-wrap.

Machining of composites has been reviewed by various authors [59-65].  Adhesive bonding for composites has been reviewed by Baldan [66, 67], Banea and da Silva [68] and Parashar and Mertiny [69].  Methodologies for the care and repair of composites have been presented by Armstrong et al [70].

7   Thermoplastic matrix composites

Thermoplastics are normally processed by increasing the temperature of the polymer to reduce the viscosity, moulding to shape, and cooling while holding the shape to produce a solid.  Strictly, only crystalline polymers melt as amorphous, or the amorphous part of partially crystalline, polymers are essentially a morphology with liquid characteristics but insufficient energy to act as regular liquids.  The effect of processing conditions on polymer properties has been discussed by Michaeli and Koschmieder [71].

For the bulk manufacture of short-fibre reinforced thermoplastics, the most successful processes are extrusion [72], and injection moulding [73-75].  In both processes, the fibres are broken down to short lengths during processing, so these technologies are not relevant to advanced (i.e. high-performance continuous fibre reinforced polymer matrix) composites.

Continuous fibre thermoplastic matrix composites can be manufactured by vacuum bagging (although high-temperature resistant bagging films are expensive and autoclave pressures are generally higher), compression moulding [76], liquid moulding [77], sheet forming [78] and the various automated processes [79-81].

The liquid composite moulding (RTM and RIFT) process are also possible if the monomer is injected and polymerised at the same time as the infusion of the reinforcement, usually at elevated temperatures [82].  The most common systems are ring-opening monomers to produce either polyamides (e.g. PA6 from caprolactam or PA12 from laurolactam) or polyesters (PBT from cyclic butylene terephthalate).

When a thermoplastic matrix is used, the equivalent of the RFI process is known as film-stacking.

Halmatic co-ordinated an EU FP4 BRITE-EurAm project (Enviro(n)Comp BE-3152/BRPR-CT96-0228)to research, develop and evaluate the use of environmentally friendly advanced thermoplastic composites for the manufacture of large surface area structures, specifically a glass fibre-reinforced polypropylene boat.  Otheguy [83] states that the project used air-textured co-mingled glass and polypropylene fibre strands (now marketed as Twintex®) for the manufacture of the technology demonstrator: the first thermoplastic composite rigid inflatable boat (RIB).  BAE Systems, the industrial partner in the project, used the technology to manufacture "very cost-effective, simple-shaped assault boats" and other experimental RIBs including a Twintex® Atlantic 85 tested in service by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI).  there may be additional information in Papin's thesis [84]. The project, was awarded the JEC Composite Award 2000 for transport innovation [85, 86].

Co-mingled glass/polypropylene was used by ÉireComposites to manufacture the 4.6 m 2win Twincat monocoque catamaran launched commercially in 2005 [87] and by the German boat builder Mega Sports Vertriebs for a set of 3 m open canoes in 2008 [88].

8   Aligned discontinuous fibre composites

Such et al [89] present an overview of the history of aligned discontinuous fibre composites.  They focus on the process and application of highly aligned advanced composites with properties that approach those of continuous fibre composites.  Aligned discontinuous fibre composites may be created by aligning short fibres or introducing discontinuities into aligned fibres in order to produce components with complex topologies.

9   Natural fibre reinforced composites

Faruk and Bledzki [90] and Summerscales and Grove [91] have reviewed the manufacturing methods that may permit the conversion of natural fibres into industrial composites.  The key constraints are the hydrophilic nature of the fibres (and hence moisture release in process) and the temperature sensitivity of the fibres limits the time at temperature during processing.  A moisture removal stage is considered an essential part of the manufacturing cycle.  The processes that are most commonly used for engineered natural fibre composites are compression moulding for both thermoplastics and thermosets and resin transfer moulding or resin infusion for thermosets.

10   Process modelling and monitoring

Process modelling has been reviewed by Advani and Sozer [92] and Lynam and Milani [93].  Process monitoring techniques have been reviewed by Summerscales [94].

11  End-of-Life composites

A number of authors [95-102] have reviewed the recycling technologies appropriate to advanced composites.  A broader consideration of the disposal of production waste and end-of-life composites has been presented by Summerscales et al [103].

* Acknowledgement

I offer sincere thanks to Richard Pemberton for drawing the Figures.

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