Executive Viewpoints: Megatrends fueling the future of composites

  • 12-Aug-2009 03:07 EDT
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Ashish Diwanji, Vice President, Innovations, Composites Group, Owens Corning

It is ironic that this topic—the world in 2020—includes numbers linked with vision. Having 20/20 eyesight is a good thing. For putting things in perspective, it is possible to have 20/20 hindsight but nobody seems to have 20/20 foresight. Yet, that’s what we are asked to do in looking ahead.

In the grand scheme of things, 2020 isn’t that far away. And I see three megatrends influencing the use of composites in off-highway mobility.

• The current downturn is having a profound impact on a new generation of business leaders, just as the Great Depression did in its day; the result will be continuing pressure on manufacturing costs.

• Energy prices will have their ups and downs, but generally rise and change behavior; we can expect more fuel-efficient vehicles of all types.

• Technological advances will, unfortunately, produce more lethal weapons; in designing armored vehicles for both protection and mobility, steel will become less of an option due to its weight.

Reducing costs

During the past 100 years at least, availability and cost have significantly influenced the adoption of new material systems. For example, the shortage of traditional materials during World War II contributed to the acceptance of polymers and glass fibers. More recently, the high cost of steel and crude oil is prompting designers to look at other material systems, including soy-based resins. During the near future, I expect the current era of relentless cost pressure to continue and encourage designers to work with alternative materials.

Two important cost benefits of composites are parts consolidation and corrosion resistance. Parts consolidation simplifies both production and assembly and often results in a better and more trouble-free construction. There are examples where more than a dozen individual metal parts and fasteners were combined into one or two composite parts.

Corrosion resistance is a significant cost-reduction benefit in many environments, but especially in hostile off-highway conditions such as mining. It is certainly a huge cost factor in agriculture, where chemical fertilizers and pesticides are used.

Offsetting energy impact

When energy prices spiked last year, the impact was widespread and severe. Retail prices at the pump got most of the attention, but airlines, trucking companies, and auto fleets were hit hard, and downstream petrochemicals were also impacted.

Prices retreated when the global economy went into a tailspin, but the drop may only be a temporary phenomenon. We are already seeing energy prices increase again, and I expect that will continue to have a significant influence on the way buyers look at new vehicles of all types, and in turn that will change the way we design and build vehicles in the future.

And just when farmers, highway construction companies, and others are looking for ways to improve fuel economy and reduce costs, the U.S. EPA’s new Tier 4 emissions regulations are reducing fuel efficiency. For some equipment, composites can help reduce weight and increase fuel economy.

Emissions regulations are also shifting the types of composites that are used in certain applications because meeting the regulations will mean higher temperatures under the hood, prompting designers to use thermoset composites in that part of the vehicle.

Petroleum costs are also driving materials changes. For example, Deere is using materials such as reaction-injection-molded PDCPD (polydicyclopentadiene) that are less sensitive to changes in oil prices. Deere has also developed a bio-based polymer (soy and corn-based) and saw interest in the material increase substantially last year when oil prices rose above $70 a barrel.

A dramatic example in construction mobility, both on and off the highway, is the Revolution composite concrete mixer drum by McNeilus Companies, Inc., an Oshkosh Corp. company. Revolution drums are 2000 lb (907 kg) lighter than steel drums and can carry more concrete. The increased payload can reduce the total number of trips needed for a job, and the weight reduction translates into significant fuel savings during return trips.

While weight savings was the original motivation for the all-composite mixer drum, there are additional benefits including the absence of concrete adhesion that requires periodical cleaning of steel mixers with a jackhammer. The composite drum also resists the corrosive effects of highly alkaline ready-mix concrete.

Balancing protection and mobility

Military vehicle designers are increasingly using composites to upgrade the ballistic performance of their vehicles while maintaining off-road maneuverability and reducing fuel requirements. By 2020, I expect most military vehicles will have moved beyond using only bolt-on armor to incorporate lightweight composite ballistic protection throughout the whole structure.

TPI Composites and Armor Holdings, Inc. unveiled a lightweight, all-composite HMMWV (high-mobility multi-purpose wheeled vehicle) as part of the U.S. Army’s All Composite Military Vehicle program. The all-composite HMMWV saves approximately 900 lb (408 kg) when compared to current steel and aluminum HMMWVs that are required to carry the same armor.

Force Protection Industries, the first company to deliver MRAP (mine-resistant, ambush protected) vehicles to the U.S. military, is evaluating the use of composites to reduce the weight of multiple components on vehicles currently in development. Force Protection believes the current trend toward lighter and more mobile vehicles will only continue. They also believe that the use of alternate materials is necessary to meet the new weight and mobility requirements while continuing to provide the level of survivability necessary to protect the lives of our troops.

Getting to 2020 successfully

Another factor spurring the use of composites in off-highway applications is the continuing advance of technology surrounding the materials and their production processes. The category of glass fibers, for example, now includes special corrosion-resistant and high-performance reinforcements with sizing chemistry specifically tailored to enhance bonding strength with a wide range of new polymers.

Engineered plastics now exist that can provide very specific performance characteristics in a finished laminate. And hand processing has given way to a comprehensive array of more automated techniques that speed up production, improve finished-part consistency, and enable greater strength and durability.

In the early days of reinforced plastics, almost all applications used thermosetting resins. These polymers had definite advantages in many reinforced-plastic applications. Today, however, reinforced thermoplastics are also widely used and bring with them a range of new benefits, including molding with low pressure and heat, finished-part toughness, and material recyclability.

The range of product and process possibilities today is so broad, in fact, that designers who are new to composites can be overwhelmed. Fortunately, the tools for navigating through these waters have also improved and can make the journey relatively easy.

After 70 years, the composites industry has sufficient knowledge to bring a competitive materials solution alternate, and in my personal experience it has never been easier to search for alternate solutions—and the reward can be finding your way to a prosperous and productive 2020.

Ashish Diwanji, Vice President, Innovations, Composites Group, Owens Corning, wrote this article for SAE Magazines.

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