UK Company Announces New Hot Press Process for Composites
A UK company has taken the composites industry by storm by announcing a brand-new hot press process they say can create finished composite parts in record time and with no loss of quality. Moreover, the company says the process can be fully automated.
Hot pressing is a way of fabricating composite parts without the need for manual layups and autoclave curing. The process is not used for parts requiring exceptional precision or strength – like airplane parts, for example – but can be used for all sorts of applications that do not require high tolerances.
Shape Machining says their process is capable of production runs ranging from 50 to 30,000 pieces per annum using a single tool. Once fully automated, they say they can produce 100,000 pieces per tool per annum. That is pretty impressive.
How Hot-Pressing Works
Rock West Composites is a Utah company that sells a range of composite products including carbon fiber fabrics. They explain that customers who purchased fabrics most often utilized them via a manual layout process. Technicians lay several layers of fabric in a mold, impregnate it with an epoxy resin, then seal the mold and put it in an autoclave to cure.
Hot-pressing is an entirely different process. Rather than starting with a carbon fiber fabric and epoxy resin, hot-pressing utilizes a hybrid product that combines both carbon and plastic fibers together. It is manufactured in the form of a fabric mat that is cut and layered into the tool until the desired thickness is reached.
At that point, the tool is sealed and a press applies both heat and pressure. The pressure creates the form while the heat melts the plastic to create a single, solid piece. The finished part comes out without any voids.
Fast and Efficient
Shape Machining demonstrated their technology by producing a full run of foot plates in record time. According to Net Composites, they were able to press the parts in under two minutes. Such a quick cycle time is impressive on many different levels.
Producing composite parts that quickly puts the process on par with the injection molding process that plastics manufacturers use. Of course, you are getting a much stronger and more durable part when you hot press composites but being able to match the speed of injection molding means mass production runs at a lower cost.
It is worth noting that hot-pressing is not a viable process for large or complex parts. For instance, it is not practical for producing boat hulls in large numbers. But when you’re talking about something like a footplate or a small door panel, hot-pressing gets the job done.
Hot-Pressing Recycled Products
In light of what Shape Machining has accomplished, it is reasonable to ask if their process could be utilized with recycled products. If so, that opens the door to all sorts of possibilities for reusing waste produced by aerospace and marine industry fabricating.
For example, consider a company like Boeing. They produce tons of carbon fiber waste every year in making fuselage panels and wing parts. Let’s say they could shred that waste and combine it with the same plastic material Shape Machining uses in their hot press process. Boeing could use the resulting material to fabricate nonstructural parts for seats, cabinets, storage shelves, and on and on.
It would be interesting to see this new hot press process in action. For now though, will have to be content to imagine the possibilities. Needless to say that accomplishing a sub 2-minute cycle for mass producing composite parts is an impressive feat.