CAMX 2023 highlights and innovations

CAMX 2023, the Composites and Advanced Materials Expo, offered products, manufacturing demonstrations and educational programs with an emphasis on design flexibility, the materials supply chain and higher-rate, lower-cost production.

CAMX 2023 highlights and innovations

9 minutes, 40 secondes

Composites suppliers and end users convened in Atlanta, Georgia, USA, in late October for CAMX 2023, co-produced by the American Composites Manufacturers Association (ACMA) and the Society for the Advancement of Material and Process Engineering (SAMPE).

There were many composites innovations to confront challenges and seize opportunities, and CAMX participants expressed a positive outlook. “We’re busy. The industry is busy. We’re all working together to help our customers get to the rates of production they want. It’s an exciting time”, said John Madej, president and CEO, Web Industries Inc., a contract manufacturing organization (CMO) specialising in composite material slitting and formatting.

Design and manufacturing flexibility

Whether their product is a boat, bathtub or aircraft, composites end users want design flexibility. Speed matters. It is a clear competitive advantage. So are efficiency and cost. Additive manufacturing is a rising star shooting toward these composites industry objectives. Here is a taste of what CAMX participants had to say about this technology:

  • produce moulds, prototypes and end products with less energy, time and cost;
  • achieve what was previously impossible;
  • work outside the box of computer numeric control (CNC) limitations;
  • create master moulds and prototypes in hours or days vs weeks;
  • empower 1 person to do the work of 10.

“Some fear new technologies, but it’s necessary to use new materials”, said Kate Popovac, co-owner, marine product supplier Velum Nautica, in a Massivit 3D Printing Technologies customer video.

Massivit hosted an open house for CAMX attendees at its Customer Experience Centre near Atlanta (Figure 1). Israel-based leaders made the long journey to join North American colleagues for presentations and demonstrations. They told a gathering of about 30 composite product manufacturers how their additive manufacturing solutions reduce 19 steps of traditional mould making to 4 steps, speeding mould production by 80%.

The Massivit 10000-G additive manufacturing system builds isotropic moulds with identical property values in all directions — a world first, the company said (see video). Patented Cast In Motion (CIM) technology delivers fully crosslinked molecular bonds between each casting interval. Massivit proprietary thermosetting (TS) epoxy resins offer high thermal stability up to 152 C. To hold the mould as it’s being cast, the 10000-G 3D prints a sacrificial shell made of a water-breakable, TS photo polymer material. This shell inflates and breaks apart when soaked in a tub of plain water, which remains uncontaminated and reusable. “We print big — very, very big, but so do others, said Avi Cohen, vice president, global sales and marketing. We also print very, very fast with materials no one else uses.”

“Finally, someone has figured out how to make moulds out of an epoxy”, said Lance Lyons, president, U.S. bathtub and shower manufacturer Lyons Industries, in another Massivit customer video.

Fig.1: Ido De La Vega (left) and Bharath Lavu (right) with the Massivit 10000-G additive manufacturing system

Another CAMX additive manufacturing innovation attracting attention was Thermwood’s Large Scale Additive Manufacturing (LSAM) system (Figure 2). The company demonstrated LSAM printing aerospace tools made of high-temperature-compatible carbon fibre (CF) advanced thermoplastic composite (TPC) polymers from Techmer PM, Sabic and Airtech (Figure 3) . “These materials can handle 177 C or higher in an autoclave, said Scott Vaal, LSAM product manager. We get vacuum integrity directly from the printed parts, machine the surfaces, and there are no extra coatings or fillers.”

Fig. 2: Thermwood LSAM printing two aerospace autoclave-ready tools with one printhead; Scott Vaal with the tool and finished part from different production steps (left to right).
Fig. 3: CAMX attendees admired this sports car at the Airtech booth; the mould for the front splitter was 3D printed of 100% recycled CF; the car won the Pike’s Peak International Hill Climb (see video)

Whether used in additive manufacturing or other processes, TPC materials give the composites industry greater design and production flexibility. For example, they offer a way to make aerospace structures without drill holes, rivets, bolts, metals and adhesives. CAMX attendees filled a conference room to hear about Airbus TPC induction welding. The company, in collaboration with Groupe Institut de Soudure, has built TPC-welded fastener-free airframe structures. Welding speeds are greater than 0,5 m/min on spans 10 m long. At the end of their useful life, TPC structures are easy to dismantle and reuse. Welded structures, made of TPC materials from Arkema and Toray, pass many performance tests.

New projects are on tap for 2024. “There is a lot of TPC work going on as the industry determines the best mix of materials for their applications”, said John Madej. Web Industries’ PrecisionBiasPly™ solution takes standard 30 cm- and 60 cm-wide carbon-fibre-reinforced polymer (CFRP) material rolls, and combines plies with automated continuous seam welding. Customers can specify their desired TPC material size for their manufacturing process. “We’re seeing demand for TPC in wider-format pieces that can be used on bigger parts”, added John Madej.

Speed, rate, volume, cost and scale – with right performance

Mixed in with glass-half-full optimism at CAMX, there was a sense of impatience to solve supply chain and manufacturing constraints – sooner rather than later. Six growth drivers are ahead.

Growing demand for composite enclosures for electric vehicle (EV) batteries. Composite materials also are important for autonomous-driving applications. For example, composites do not interfere with radio-frequency (RF) signals.

Urban air mobility (UAM) and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV)
Demand for high-volume production of composite parts, such as propeller blades. The moment one UAM aircraft OEM receives clearance for commercial flight, the flood gates will open for composite material and manufacturing capacity demand.

Wind energy
Growing use of composites for giant turbine blades and spar caps.

Aerospace and defence
Original equipment manufacturers (OEM) and their supply chains are building aircraft to meet current demand and designing next-generation aircraft and spacecraft.

Hydrogen (H2)
H2 energy production, storage and distribution pose “the perfect storm” for CFRP materials, according to a CAMX panel discussion (Figure 4). On the one hand, it’s prime time for CFRP innovation to support H2 applications. On the other hand, CFRP material costs and supplies are too high and too short, respectively.

One major H2 project could require a big slice of the CF global supply. For example, consider the interest in lining natural gas pipes with CFRP so that they can carry H2 or H2-natural gas blend. BrainDrip LLC works on such H2 delivery solutions. Kent Weisenberg, managing partner and chief technology officer, said a project to install CFRP liner on a 1,609 km-long, 76 cm-wide natural gas pipeline would consume 6 percent of the world’s CF manufacturing capacity.

Fig. 4: The CAMX hydrogen seminar featured speakers representing SAMPE, Avient, BrainDrip, Nexight Group, Avient (left to right), and the U.S. Department of Energy (at podium)

Sporting goods
One word: pickleball! Millions of pickleball paddles are made of FRP composite materials. In the United States alone, an estimated 130 pickleball courts are added monthly.

CAMX exhibitors were aware of these urgent demands and offered solutions. John Madej said Web Industries is investing in technology to increase slitting speed, automate inspection, reduce labour, decrease costs and optimise factory floor space. “How can we take the standard slitting operation footprint and really change the game, and do it in a completely different way?”, he said, referring to new business models in development and not yet public knowledge.

Fig. 5: Web Industries Inc. team: Jason Surman, Ashley Graeber, John Madej, Don Myers, Lee Smith and Blake Phillips (left to right)

Hexcel Corp. emphasised the high-rate, low-cost manufacturing potential of its new RTM 200 resin system. This TS system cures out-of-autoclave at 121 C within about one hour. It is targeted to the UAM market, particularly for wing and propeller blades (see video). RTM 200 can be stored at room temperature for up to one year. “It enables high-rate production, which is fantastic, said Rebekah Stuart, product manager, Americas Matrix, Hexcel. Our UAM/UAV customers are looking at building thousands of these, and traditional autoclave curing isn’t necessarily an option.”

Cannon featured the Interwet-Long Fibre Injection (LFI) technology for producing glass fibre-reinforced polyurethane (GFR-PU) parts. The Italy-based company sees opportunities for this technology in the United States and plans North American expansion through its Cannon USA subsidiary. Interwet LFI’s proprietary mixing head can change both the fibre percentage and fibre length entering the PU matrix.

This ability to make such adjustments is particularly important for parts with ribs (Figure 6). “The game changer is that Interwet LFI can produce automotive volumes up to 300,000 parts per year, said Enrico Schinelli, sales engineer, composites, Cannon. Also, whereas sheet moulding compound (SMC) manufacturing processes require 80 bars of pressure, Interwet LFI requires only 5 bars to 8 bars. This means capital expenditures for industrial presses are lower.

Fig. 6: GFR-PU composite part with ribs produced with Cannon Interwet LFI

Artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics

Both also attracted CAMX attention. In the CompositesOne demonstration zone, GrayMatter Robotics showed an AI-driven surface-finishing robot that programmes itself after scanning a part (Figure 7) (see video). AI eliminates hundreds of programming hours typical for traditional robotic automation. The robot performs automated sanding, buffing, polishing, gel coating and other finishing processes on parts and products of various substrates. See video of a dual-arm autonomous robotic cell designed by GrayMatter Robotics to sand composite marine and RV parts.

GrayMatter Robotics has turnkey solutions for a range of manufacturing sectors. For example, the robots can be mounted on a gantry or mobile base to work on large wind turbine blades, bus panels, boats, architectural components, fighter jets, even submarines. Or, they can work on smaller products such as American football helmets, surfboards and guitars. “The robot continually takes feedback from many sensors to adapt, adjust and guarantee quality and consistency, while also self-monitoring for rapid maintenance, said Ariyan Kabir, co-founder and CEO. Especially important in today’s labour climate, the solution is designed to be intuitively used by operators and requires only one day of training to operate, effectively improving workers’ quality of life and enabling greater productivity.”

Fig. 7: Bianca Pugliese and Rahul Thorat with GrayMatter Robotics’ AI-driven surface-finishing robot

One CAMX panel discussion offered AI and manufacturing digitalization perspectives from Microsoft, Plyable and Authentise. Key takeaways:

  • small projects are a good place to start; the “science project” approach;
  • it is important to get support from production operators and management, from the bottom up and top down; “the slowest part of the change process is the people”;
  • by mining data assets, businesses can create new pipelines of income beyond physical products;
  • AI is not about ‘repeating a pattern’; it is about ‘understanding’.

The panel moderator thanked the tech industry guest speakers for making the trek to CAMX, where they were a different breed of expert on the agenda. “More people need to hear this”, said one audience member afterward. Another attendee said AI will help his aerospace structures business to cross-train workers, prevent quality problems and cope with employee turnover and labour shortages.

Fig. 8: Manufacturing digitalization and AI panellists from Georgia Tech, Microsoft, Plyable and Authentise (left to right)

Infrastructure growth opportunities

The hydrogen economy, wind energy, UAM and EV are not the only big opportunities for the composites industry. There are other applications where composites are the clear material of choice. For example, new semiconductor manufacturing facilities are going up in the United States. Ventilation fans in these factories must resist corrosion from toxic gases emitted during computer chip production. Composite materials meet performance requirements for these fans. Corrosion-resistant composites also are ideal to replace rusted sea walls and river locks. FRP composite rebar, wraps and pultruded beams are gaining traction for these and other construction uses.

However, FRP composite material costs are a challenge. “There’s a lot of lip service given to weight savings and other benefits, but it all comes back to cost”, said Greg McCunn, staff engineer, composites, materials and engineering technology, John Deere, during a CAMX campfire panel discussion: A Resilient and Competitive Future in the Composite Built Environment.

The composites industry must convince builders to look beyond FRP parts upfront costs per unit and to focus instead on:

  • better performance at less weight;
  • lower transportation costs;
  • environmental sustainability benefits;
  • fewer maintenance requirements.

Strongwell built a wireless electricity transmission tower of pultruded GFRP. RF waves pass through the composite building material, minimising lost signals from the tower (case study). It’s a modern-day evolution Nikola Tesla’s brilliant invention of the 1890s, which proved too far ahead for his time.

The composite materials simply did not exist yet to take Tesla’s vision to commercial success. The Strongwell project has many superlatives:

  • world’s largest freestanding GFRP tower at almost 61 meters tall;
  • world’s largest pultrusion machine used to manufacture tower components;
  • project of this scale never attempted;“So many people had to say ‘no’ to it” but Strongwell took on the challenge.

CAMX 2024 will be 9-12 September in San Diego, California.
Kathleen S.C. Heberger – External Contributor

More information www.thecamx.org