TPRC: expertise in thermoplastics
The ThermoPlastic composite Research Centre (TPRC) in Enschede was the result of an initiative by TenCate in 2007 with aircraft manufacturer Boeing, Fokker Technologies (manufacturer of aircraft parts) and the University of Twente as partners. TPRC is an open innovation centre that focuses on thermoplastic composites for the aircraft industry and on secondary high-grade applications in transport, industry, energy and health care.
Interest in thermoplastic composites and their potential applications is increasing steadily as customers seek materials that are lighter, more cost efficient and more environment friendly. These composites are light, strong, stiff, sustainable and recyclable. Fuel consumption is a major factor in the price of the flight. Boeing aims to speed up the development of thermoplastic composite technologies and to make the production of thermoplastic composite products both faster and more efficient. This will require the value chain to grow and mature.
Harald Heerink (left) and Bert Rietman
‘As a result of the specific knowledge that has been acquired and the support we have provided in the making of several products, other companies now know where to find us’, general manager Harald Heerink and business developer Bert Rietman told us. ‘It is important to understand the process and to strengthen our position. And this will reverberate. The world of thermoplastics is still small, but we have been able to attract ever more customers. The Netherlands is a major player in thermoplastics, particularly through TenCate and through branding TenCate Cetex® and helping to market it.’
TPRC is also now focusing on the automotive industry. Composites in the form of fibre-reinforced thermosets are already being used in more expensive cars and in Formula One racing cars, which are produced in small numbers. This material is, however, less suitable for mass production. ‘The automotive industry can in principle expand the use of thermoplastic composites more rapidly. This is because its requirements are less strict when it comes for example to knowledge of long-term behaviour, such as fatigue, creep and degradation.’ While just three years ago Harald Heerink, Bert Rietman and others were carrying out only technology road map research for paying TPRC members, they are now also working on bilateral projects - primarily to serve the automotive market. This would seem to be a a win-win situation: ‘Aerospace will benefit and the automobile industry too can take advantage of it. Every car part made of thermoplastic composite will result in a lower total weight and reduced costs.’ Recently a major step was taken: with ever improving models of the conversion process, fold deformation can be predicted and mistakes in the final product avoided. A fold is a weak spot. One of the methods to design and make a fold-free product is to place the fibre layers in the mould at a given angle in relation to one another.
Learning from developments
Boeing has welcomed the switch to the automotive industry, said Harald Heerink. ‘The reason behind this is that when volume becomes high, the price can be reduced. All the OEMs in the automotive industry make demands as regards light weight and that are based on European emission requirements. Low weight is one of the ways to achieve lower emissions, just like the drive system and aerodynamics. There is a wide range of options when it comes to materials. Thermoplastics are relatively new, so there is still some hesitation about this new technology. We expect thermoplastics to make a breakthrough, even though there will always be a mix with materials like high-strength steel. Aerospace can learn from the developments in the automotive industry, such as automation, production processes and overmoulding. This is the shaping of thermoplastics in combination with injection moulding for extra finishing and functionalities. However, our focus on the automotive industry must not divert us from our core research programme. We must continue to keep up the momentum, as it is the basis of our success. That is also the reason why we intend to integrate automotive partners into the TPRC, such as a tier 1 and material producer, so as to bring the value chain into alignment with them. However, the automotive industry has not yet advanced that far.’
TPRC has already achieved results: an increase in knowledge and a lightweight car seat, which, they both believe, is ‘a critical part’. ‘A double curvature is especially difficult, they explain, ‘also in a car seat. By placing the fibres this way and that in the mould, it can be made without folds and with predictable characteristics. We are going to continue to optimize this process, in which we lead the way. Our customer is now offering this seat to OEMs. The seat can be made in ninety seconds, and in our world of traditional processing that is a significant breakthrough.’