The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the shift from using conventional materials to composites, forcing engineers and manufacturers to think outside the box.
The world of composite materials has uncapped potential for a wide variety of applications, just waiting to be discovered. Sectors that have predominantly used conventional materials such as metals will be looking to realise gains from the use of composites.
The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated this shift, due to increasing steel prices and reduced availability. Engineers and manufacturers have had to think outside the box, using alternative materials that achieve the same stiffness and weight requirements, within a given space frame.
One industry that is growing rapidly and can harness the benefits of composites is the development and manufacture of electric motors. These motors use heavier materials such as copper, magnets and batteries, therefore, the structural elements need to be light as well as strong; composites fit this purpose exactly, and also have the capability of conforming to complicated shapes and can form part of the integral structure.
Tesla vehicles are a good example of where this is already taking place, where integrated batteries can offer potentially 10% weight saving and an increase in range of 14%. The electric vehicle industry is making great strides with this technology, with others to follow suit. Where integrated composite structures could see their greatest development is electric powered aircraft and eVTOL’s.
Companies such as ZeroAvia and Vertical aerospace are looking to push the envelope of what is possible. Their long-term plans of making electric aircraft commercially viable may look to utilise composite materials for the purposes of reduced maintenance, increased range and efficiency. A method for achieving would be with automation. Machines can now layup multiple pieces on moulds and bring them together for the final product. Tailoring of fibre directions can take place during this stage, more efficiently than hand lay-up.
The future of composite materials is an extremely promising one, with the automotive and aerospace sectors driving new developments. With the increase in electric vehicles on the road and the advent of electric urban taxis, we will continue to see the wider use of composites for advanced structures. This will enable price reductions as processes are refined and enable technology to filter down to other industries.
If you wish to learn more about composites, the Institution has recently launched a suite of composites training courses. Find out more at: imeche.org/composites
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