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Cost of Composites Main Concern for Rail Industry

06 August 2004

Industry report suggests that composites need to be more cost-competitive with metals within the framework of the rail industry’s normal costing practices.

This - the second industry report from a series of three - from the COMPOSIT thematic network project points to the need for cheaper component costs of composites, before they are integrated into the rail industries manufacturing programme.

The reports are based on the collated findings of the ten COMPOSIT research clusters with one report for each of the aerospace, automotive and rail industries. The reports focus on the future research requirements of the transport sectors in order to facilitate an increased use of composite materials.

The second of these reports, available from the NetComposites website, relates to the rail industry.

The report suggests that composite materials, such as fibre reinforced plastics and sandwich panels, have considerable potential for use in the next generation of transport structures. They are lightweight, durable, and readily moulded to shape. However, there are also additional complexities associated with the use of composites, particularly in terms of design and manufacture. These complexities, together with issues of cost, are currently limiting their adoption by the transport sectors.

Throughout 2002 and 2003, the COMPOSIT thematic network on “The Future Use of Composites in Transport” organised a series of workshops on ten of the critical issues associated with the use of composite materials in the aerospace, automotive and rail industries. These ten issues were repair, design and structural simulation, crashworthiness, manufacturing, lightweighting, joining, recycling, modelling, fire safety, and new material concepts. As an output from each workshop, priorities for future research activity to meet the needs of the transport sectors were identified. This report presents the findings of COMPOSIT in terms of the rail industry. Key recommendations for future research priorities include:

The development of better prediction methodologies for non-linear behaviour, long-term behaviour, damage mechanisms / failure modes, and behaviour at elevated strain rates.
The development of more cost-effective manufacturing technologies.
The development of life cycle analysis models to quantify the financial and environmental benefits of lightweight composites.
The development of better tools for the specification of joints.
The development of new fire safe resin systems that provide good all-round performance.

In recent years, prototype composite structures and components have been developed for a range of fully structural rail vehicle applications. These include cabs, bodyshells, bogies and wheel sets. For most such cases, the technical feasibility of producing the composite prototype was well demonstrated. It has been the associated issues of part cost, the required manufacturing investment, and a lack of customer confidence over ongoing fitness for purpose that have limited their introduction to the market.

The implementation of the recommendations for future research activity outlined earlier in this report would be a significant contribution towards overcoming these current barriers. For example:
Improved design tools would reduce the development costs of composite structures and components, and would provide increased confidence over their fitness for purpose. They would also help to reduce part costs by allowing the development of optimised structures that eliminate excessive levels of over-engineering.
More efficient and cost-effective manufacturing technologies would also help to reduce part costs.
A better understanding of issues such as repair, crashworthiness, joining, recycling and fire safety would provide increased confidence in the functionality of composite structures and components for designers, manufacturers, operators and end-users.

If future research, development and demonstration efforts are able to adequately address the key concerns of industry in this way, then the routine application of fully structural composite cabs, bodyshells, and bogies in the medium-long term does not seem wholly unreasonable.

Composite materials are already routinely employed by the rail industry, albeit mainly in limited, semi-structural, non-safety critical applications. If composites are to be used more widely, then three key conditions need to be fulfilled:
Design and manufacturing engineers need to be able to employ composite technologies as routinely as traditional materials, i.e. appropriate tools need to be made available.
The rail industry needs to be confident that composite structures will function in a predictable manner, over the life of a vehicle, without compromising safety.
Composites need to be cost-competitive with metals within the framework of the rail industry’s normal costing practices.

In terms of the first two points, this report has identified a number of key technical areas in which further research and development is required. If progress could be made towards addressing these issues, then the rail industry would be in a better position to routinely evaluate composite technologies as an alternative to metals. Of course, this wouldn’t guarantee that composites would actually be specified, but it would at least allow a fair comparison.

The third point, that of cost, is critical. If initial component cost is a strong influence on material and product selection within the rail industry, then composites need to be no more expensive than equivalent metals, and preferably cheaper. A greater emphasis on life-cycle costing would undoubtedly benefit composites given their potential for lightweighting, and the composites industry should be preaching this message.

Finally, the European Rail Research Advisory Council (ERRAC) has established some challenging targets for 2020, particularly with respect to increases in passenger and freight volumes. If these targets are to be met within the framework of the existing rail system, then it is likely that new vehicle technologies will have to be adopted. If the issues highlighted in this report could be addressed, then composites would be well placed in this respect. Further information on COMPOSIT can be found at www.compositn.net. The complete reports can be downloaded by clicking here.






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