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On Campus: Ontario Is a Hot Spot for Composites Research

February 29, 2012
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Composites are an attractive alternative to metal for automotive and aerospace manufacturers. The material offers lighter weight, better corrosion resistance and higher impact strength than steel and aluminum. It also allows engineers to significantly reduce the number of parts in assemblies.

To address growing demand and unique manufacturing challenges, the University of Western Ontario recently partnered with Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Chemical Technology to establish a world-class research center in London, ON. The Fraunhofer Project Centre in Composites is the first facility of its kind in North America.

“The Centre is neutral and open to all who wish to access it,” says Andrew Hrymak, dean of engineering at the University of Western Ontario and deputy director of the Fraunhofer Project Centre. “The Centre came about because of a convergence of needs and opportunities.

“There was an unmet need by North American industry to have a research and development center that could accommodate industrial-scale molds and product trials that were currently being done in Germany and [elsewhere],” adds Hrymak.

The City of London, which is interested in developing advanced manufacturing for economic development, provided $10 million toward the infrastructure, including equipment and a building located in a local business park. London is strategically located in the heart of the Canadian automotive industry. And, it’s a short drive away from hundreds of automotive manufacturing operations in Detroit.

“Through our conversations with industry partners, we will identify projects where lightweight materials will make a significant impact,” says Hrymak. “For example, in the automotive sector, [new technologies such as electric vehicles and hybrid power trains] will rely on lightweight materials to get maximum range. But, at the same time, we do not want to compromise safety—composites are an innovative approach to deal with the problems.

“We’re adopting a holistic problem-solving approach,” claims Hrymak. “If someone wishes to develop a new part, we will consult with them to determine if they would like to involve other members of the value chain required to bring the part to reality.

“For instance, a Tier 1 supplier might benefit from participation with a material supplier, an equipment supplier and an OEM,” Hrymak points out. “This approach often accelerates the solution and its adoption. We also have the ability to execute either bilateral or multilateral funding approaches.”

When it’s fully operational this summer, the Fraunhofer Project Centre will be equipped with a large hydraulic press suitable for research on a wide variety of parts. Research will be carried out in processing technologies such as sheet molding compounds (SMCs), long-fiber reinforced thermoplastics and high-pressure resin transfer molding.

“Our current focus is on weight reduction through the use of lightweight materials and composites,” explains Hrymak. “So, we will be looking at compression molding of large thermoplastic parts, with reinforcing through glass, carbon and biosourced fibers.”

In the near future, the Centre will also focus on new projects involving cutting, material handling and parts integration. For instance, use of SMCs for large structural components has tremendous potential in the auto industry. One SMC floor panel could replace up to 17 steel parts and shed up to 25 pounds from the weight of a typical passenger car.

Two project engineers from Fraunhofer are currently dedicated to the Centre, which already has R&D contracts with Ford and General Motors. “This number will grow, depending on project needs,” says Hrymak. “By July, a project engineer and two technicians will join the staff, funded through a large research grant from the Province of Ontario.”

To learn more about the Fraunhofer Project Centre in Composites, click www.eng.uwo.ca/fraunhofer or call 519-661-2111, ext. 86435.

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