Composites

Composites materials are made up from reinforcements and resins that are moulded to produce high performance components.  Glass reinforcements with polyester resin systems are the most widely used composites across a range of applications. Carbon reinforcements with epoxy resin systems are used in specialist applications such as aerospace and high performance automotive.

Moulding processes

Composite components can be manufactured using a range of processes which vary depending on the raw materials used and the quantities required.

Compression moulding for high volume applications uses a heated tool, usually metal, which is closed under high pressure to for moulding complex and high strength products.  Compression moulding gives short cycle times, typically between two and ten minutes.  

Resin transfer moulding (RTM) is ideal for medium volume requirements as steel, aluminium or composite tools can be used. The reinforcement is placed in the tool and then resin is injected. The curing time can be reduced by heating the moulding tools.

Hand lamination best suited to lower volume production.  With this process composite tools are usually used. Raw materials and resins cure at room temperature.  Cycle times are longer than with both compression moulding and RTM moulding.

Advantages of composites

The unique structure of composites mean they have many advantages over traditional materials such as thermoplastics or metals.  

Design - Unique products can be designed to include curves and rounded edges as well as additional features incorporating bosses, stiffeners, brackets and alignments. Additional benefits are that a single composite moulding can be designed to consolidate and replace the functionality of many individual metal components.

Structure - Composite materials can be tailored to meet specific performance needs such as strength, fatigue resistance, corrosion resistance and impact resistance. Components produced from composites materials have many advantages in that they are lightweight, heat resistant, resistant to chemical attack, dimensionally stable, rigid and offer excellent acoustic performance.

Efficiency – Automated manufacturing methods along with superior material characteristics means that cost effective products can be produced using composite materials.

Applications

Composites are used in a wide variety of industries some of which are outlined below:

Aerospace, carbon fibre composites used for airframe manufacture.
Automotive industry, carbon fibre and glass fibre composites used for interior and exterior components to reduce weight and improve fuel efficiency - including panels, bumpers, spoilers, diffusers, light transom panels etc.
Construction, composites are used for a wide variety of applications such as exterior door skins and temporary structure cladding.
Marine applications include boat hulls, decking and compartment covers.
Transportation applications for interior seating, racking and exterior body panels.
Medical equipment housing and the use of composites where sterile environments are important.
Renewable industry, composites are used in wind turbine blades and cowling, solar panel framing, hydro-electric blades.
Defence applications for advanced composites used in packaging as well as radomes and other defence equipment.

Global Demand

Global demand for composite materials is increasing.  New applications and material innovations ensure composites are at the forefront of new technology.  An example of this is the surge in demand for composite wind turbine blades and nacelles in the renewable industry and the demand for lighter component parts in the automotive industry to facilitate greater energy efficiency.

Northern Ireland Composites expertise

Northern Ireland has a hub of composites expertise where local companies manufacture and export products to global customers across international markets. World leading R&D into new materials, processes and applications is being carried out through collaboration between local universities and industrial partners.