The National Composites Centre (NCC) has opened a new 9,948m2 lab at its site in Bristol, UK, featuring 10 new machines that could allow composites to be a viable, mass-producible alternative to traditional metallic parts.

The global market for composites is predicted to be worth US$105.8 billion in 2020 and growing at 6.5% per year. In the UK, the value of composites is expected to reach c. £12.5 billion by 2030. However, while aerospace is a significant driver of demand, using current, labour intensive techniques, manufacturers can only make six pairs of wings per month, while the market requires 100.

According to the center, it developed the machines as part of a two-year, £36.7 million project. They include two large industrial robots that can automate the wing production process, weighing 45 tonnes and 24 tonnes respectively. The NCC says that the robots can measure, cut, lift and place carbon fiber fabric plies with improved accuracy, and can also lay 5 m wide strips of composite material, up to 20 m long, in one movement. This could cut the number of fabric components required from around 100,000 to just 150 and reduces wing-build time from one week to one day, the center says.

Other technologies include a circular braider, the largest of its kind in Europe, which can automatically weave up to 288 individual strands of carbon fiber to create hollow 3D geometries for products such as pipes or aircraft propellers. The NCC says that it has also developed processes for non-destructive testing with two 3m high robots that beam ultrasound down high-pressure water jets.

‘The investment in 10 new world-leading composites capabilities will enable us to develop the wings and engines for the aircraft of the future, work on technologies that will define the way we produce and store energy and transform the way we build infrastructure,’ said Richard Oldfield, chief executive.

This story uses material from NCC, with editorial changes made by Materials Today. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of Elsevier.