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A Breakthrough in Thermoplastic Composites

  • Wednesday, 25th September 2019
  • Reading time: about 4 minutes

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The ThermoPlastic composites Research Center (TPRC) in Enschede celebrates its tenth anniversary on 8 October 2019. 

At a conference hosted by the University of Twente (UT), the TPRC will reflect on the most important milestones of this consortium which started life as just a couple of researchers at the UT. It will also look to the future, and the even wider application of thermoplastic composites. 

Over the last decade the TPRC has been a key player in the broader use of these ultra-light and strong materials in the auto and aviation industries. Multinationals like Boeing, Toray Advanced Composites (previously TenCate Advanced Composites) and GKN Fokker were partners from the start, and are now strongly committed to thermoplastic composites.

Composites make up a growing part of our world, though we are often unaware of them. The cars we drive and the aircraft we fly in use increasing amounts of this ‘futuristic material’. They already make up half of a Boeing 787 Dreamliner, and they are likely to play an increasingly important role in the debate on CO2 emissions and fuel savings.

What are thermoplastic composites?

Thermoplastic composites are super-light, strong, stiff materials that are also sustainable and recyclable. Products constructed of these materials can be up to 40% lighter than those generally used in cars and aircraft, and this yields great benefits. Nevertheless, many manufacturers still have no ‘feel’ for the material; experience with steel, for instance, does not transfer one-to-one to composites. “So the manufacturers come to us,” explains Harald Heerink, General Manager of TPRC since 2011. “We’ve now grown into an international consortium of 22 members who we help with research, training, testing and production. The unique thing about it is that the entire value chain is represented. Knowledge institutes, materials suppliers, machines and parts, the aviation and car industries – they’re all involved.”

Much more than just a network

The first important milestone that TPRC celebrated was the opening of its own lab at Kennispark Twente in 2012. In this high-tech, 750m² facility TPRC operates its own forming press, an advanced fibre placement machine, injection moulding machines, various laboratory technologies, and test benches. “The lab turned TPRC into much more than just a network; our members make full use of it,” says Heerink.

Research and engineering at TPRC gathered real momentum only three years ago. “The large aircraft manufacturers indicated that they want to employ thermoplastic composites on a large scale, so they  need the help of the suppliers. Large American companies, such as Spirit AeroSystems and Collins Aerospace, major Tier 1 suppliers of the aviation industry, were quick to join the TPRC. Our membership model is unique in the world of thermoplastic composites: members pay a membership fee for five years, so they commit themselves strongly to working with us and with each other.”

Designing faultless shapes

In technological terms, too, TPRC is a world leader in the design of virtually faultless parts. “It’s called ‘virtual manufacturing’,” explains Heerink. “It makes the design process more predictable, and this was the last hurdle we needed to clear. It means that it can be shown, at an early stage in the design process, whether a component is manufacturable. Its application meets the two most important demands of the auto industry: weight reduction and cost reduction. Remember that a large injection mould sometimes costs more than a million euros, so a faultless production process is essential to manufacturers and suppliers.”

The future

Heerink expects TPRC to keep growing, “Expanding the consortium will remain important for the industrial application of thermoplastic composites. The aviation industry can sometimes be rather hesitant about adopting innovations. What’s happening now is remarkable, but we need to expand further. The focus is also increasingly being placed on recycling, we have already implemented a number of successful projects. We also expect wider application in other products such as professional bike frames. The Belgian company REIN4CED, which will also be speaking at our conference, is working on this, for example.”

Conference: ‘The Future of Thermoplastic Composites’

‘The Future of Thermoplastic Composites’ conference will take place on 8 October 2019 at the University of Twente. Prominent experts will join conference visitors to discuss the latest technological developments and applications in the field of thermoplastic composites. The keynote speaker is Alex Rubin, Senior Technical Fellow at Boeing. The moderator is the technology expert Danny Mekić. TPRC expects over 300 participants to attend.

Image provided by TPRC

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