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Supplying innovations can be an exciting venture, filled with fun and challenge. Here is how, in the evolving composite material industry, a supplier of weaving innovations has been led to make a slow but steady shift to consider unusual weaving technologies designed for their special needs.
(Published on August-September 2005 – JEC Magazine #19)
BY FREDRIK WINBERG CHAIRMAN AND CO-FOUNDER, BITEAM AB BOARD MEMBER AND CO-FOUNDER, OXEON AB
Acomposite material owes its performance and reliability largely to the fibres and fabric structures used. Although originally designed for clothing application, weaving is widely used for producing a variety of reinforcements. The process has been improved only to handle different fibres and to increase production speed. The last major textile development was the nonwoven process to produce multiaxial fabrics – and that was 20 years ago! Since then, no new textile processes have been considered for high-end composite material manufacture, even though new products and improved performance are always sought. We need new weaving processes designed for reinforcement manufacture, not for clothing materials. This is the objective of two small, innovative companies from Sweden, Biteam and Oxeon, which have developed the first ever 3D-weaving and tape-weaving processes along with the corresponding woven materials. Here are some of the experiences and concerns of an “innovation supplier”.
Weaving appears to be well understood. After all, it has been in practice for 5000 years! However, it requires taking a look at the demonstration models to understand our weaving developments, even for a weaving expert.
These are unlike any past methods and equipment, and not designed for clothing/furnishing applications. Consequently, it was necessary to establish their “fundamentals” in the textile field before presenting them to the composite industry. This has taken some time, but has been accomplished. Academics and industrialists are beginning to understand these developments now.
The methods are unusual, however. Because they are designed to solve some long-standing problems in completely new ways, they are not usually considered because of the “existing products are working well so why have new” view. Proposals for projects to construct industrial machines are normally viewed as “not developed by us, so why participate”.
The market for newer reinforcements is evolving and bound to expand soon. Utilisation of composite materials is increasing globally. A “new order” for global textile trade is in place and traditional methods are widely available, so the major reinforcement producers can expect competition.
As Biteam and Oxeon are mostly privately funded, their entry into the markets is constrained mainly by limited financial resources. Some of the big players want quick supplies for testing, but are usually unwilling to pay for test volumes and production costs. Many do not even want to share the test results. The willing ones find conventional test procedures inadequate for these new materials, and others put up conditions that discourage potential co-operation and risk sharing. Nevertheless, our knowledge and competence in this new technical area is now recognised as unique. Another positive development is that some leading companies are initiating test projects for a variety of applications. When a major player proposes to start a project based on a new development, it opens up new avenues.
The role of textile processes is usually viewed narrowly in the composite scheme of things. This is because the few processes in use have been around for so long in the textile industry, and have been so remarkably well exploited up to now.
3D-Weaving is a whole new concept. A dual-directional shedding system is indispensable for its realization. Only through such a system a multiple layer warp can be interlaced with multiple horizontal wefts and multiple vertical wefts to directly produce shell, tubular and solid types of 3D-woven fabrics in countless crosssectional profiles. The dual-directional 3D-weaving process offers great potential in engineering delaminationfree and controlled fibre distribution and volume-fraction constructions.
Given the declining number of textile students and technology-related R&D activities, new developments could become slow and difficult.
Funding is not easily available for developing new textile processes. The composite industry needs special textiles and in relatively very small volumes, compared to usual textiles. However, traditional textile equipment manufacturers are looking for largevolume applications for a quick return on machinery development costs.
Engineering companies lacking in textile processing knowledge are not adequately qualified to develop completely new and specialised machines.
The production aspects of the new processes are not comparable with existing weaving standards because they involve different methods and products.
On the textile-testing front, new procedures are needed to replace existing methods that are inadequate. Different products also have different qualifying standards, for example those for Formula 1 and aircraft parts. But are these standards uniform within the same industry? We don’t always know, since at times there appears to be a communication gap between textile and composite-material people.
It could be useful to have a specialised composites centre to help with handling textile-related information and developments. Such a centre could also facilitate contact with fibre manufacturers, for example, to find ways to use their heavier but cheaper carbon tows to produce lightweight fabrics directly and relatively more cheaply, without heavy investment.
That JEC Composites Magazine even considered inviting small newcomers like Biteam and Oxeon to express their thoughts in this column raises our hopes about the further advancement of composite materials through innovation! Such an invitation is, by itself, a first positive and innovative step forward. The next step should be viewing these novel methods as new, flexible tools that are well suited for designing and manufacturing nextgeneration reinforcements.