Researchers are on the verge of a breakthrough that will allow for the wide-scale use of thermoplastic composites in the automotive industry. These 'futuristic materials' are ultra-light, while being strong and rigid and also sustainable and recyclable. Researchers at the ThermoPlastic Composite Research Center (TPRC) in Enschede (Netherlands) were recently successful in overcoming the last hurdle, which was to design practically faultless components and to make the process for doing so predictable. This makes it possible to determine at an early stage of the design process whether a component can be manufactured at all. This means that the two biggest requirements made by the automotive industry, namely weight reduction and reduced costs, can be satisfied.
"All of the large car manufacturers have a need for thermoplastic composites," says Bert Rietman, business developer at the TPRC and closely involved with the Production Technology chair at the University of Twente. "Products made with these materials can be up to around 40% lighter than the materials usually used in cars and therefore bring great advantages. But many manufacturers are still not keen on these materials. The experience they have gained processing steel, for example, cannot be wholly transferred to composite processing. Manufacturers are often dependent on their suppliers when it comes to innovations and new technologies. Increasingly, it is mainly these suppliers who approach the TPRC, in addition to OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers)."
Understanding the material
In order to come up with the right form and to avoid trial and error as much as possible during the design process, UT doctoral degree candidate Ulrich Sachs carried out research into understanding thermoplastic composites. Only when designers completely understand the way the materials bend, frictionize and slip will it be possible to make completely faultless products. "Designers want to know whether a component can be manufactured or not as quickly as possible," explains Sachs. "For example, they want to know whether the material will wrinkle during forming, and whether the final product and the manufacturing process will be satisfactory. The automotive industry requires simulation of new materials and processes, but the software for forming metal currently in use is not suitable for simulating the behaviour of thermoplastic composites. This means that totally new software is needed in order to allow all of the pieces to fall into place. And we have now designed this software."
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