Two years ago, leaders from material supplier Johns Manville and engineering firm Forward Engineering met for the first time at an automotive conference in Michigan. Initial conversations about a shared interest in developing innovative lightweighting solutions quickly led to a formal collaboration between the two companies. In May 2019, the companies participated in a design challenge at ACMA’s Composites Technology Day at Ford Motor Company, presenting a jointly-developed design for a structural thermoplastic battery enclosure.

Collaborations such as this one are key to continued growth of the composites industry. “The industry needs complete solutions,” says Adam Halsband, managing director of Forward Engineering North America LLC. “Bringing together experts at every stage of the product development process and every point along the value chain maximizes the potential to prepare a complete solution that will resonate with the industry.”

While all industries talk about the importance of breaking down silos and working together, collaboration is imperative in the highly complex world of composites with exacting demands on material performance, processing technologies and end-use requirements.

“A broader view from different perspectives provides a much wider spectrum of information regarding requirements of the market, but also more versatile solutions,” says Martin Grosskreutz, sales director of Roth Composite Machinery. “The composites industry has a bright future if companies, government agencies, universities and other institutions see the benefits and enhance the implementation of composites in our daily life.”

A Network of Companies

In June, Roth Composite Machinery launched a four-year partnership with AZL Aachen GmbH. One of the initial activities will be contributing to a joint study on filament winding technologies for composite pressure tanks as part of AZL’s workgroup on composite pipes and vessels. The working group is one of six spearheaded by AZL, which partners with more than 80 companies to pursue business and technology development.

“We offer our network a systematic approach to jointly identify business opportunities and market potential for lightweight technologies,” says Kai Fischer, managing partner of AZL Aachen GmbH. “We then develop these technologies involving our partners from industry and our high-tech ecosystem at the RWTH Aachen University campus, where several hundred collaborations on composite and lightweight solutions are initiated each year.” AZL partners have completed many projects, including material and processing benchmarks for thermoplastic tapes, ultra-fast manufacturing of tailored composite blanks and development of a low-cost, energy-efficient double belt press.

The new benchmarking study aims to provide economic insights on composite technologies in high pressure vessels, a key enabling technology for sustainable transportation in automotive, trucks and rail. AZL has assembled a team of experts along the value chain to provide realistic production figures and cost, including Roth Composite Machinery.

“We’ve seen enormous cost reduction in carbon fiber pressure vessels in the upper two-digit percentage range within the last decade because of the transformation to high-volume production,” says Michael Emonts, managing partner of AZL Aachen GmbH. “Future cost cuts will require a more efficient use of materials. This can only be achieved by close cooperation of experts along the entire process chain who discuss fields of action, derive roadmaps and implement R&D projects.”

As an equipment supplier that has installed more than 550 machines around the world, Roth offers expertise in filament winding technology processes. “We can contribute a very special and detailed knowledge as to what filament winding processes require, how they work and which productivity advantages they can offer,” says Andreas Reimann, managing director of Roth Composite Machinery.

Complementary Expertise

Just as AZL fosters industry growth through collaboration, so too does ACMA as the industry’s largest trade association. “The Composites Technology Day at Ford that ACMA initiated really created a mechanism for [Forward Engineering and Johns Manville] to highlight the work we are doing together,” says Halsband.

As part of the event, Ford held a design challenge, assembling a list of several complex parts manufactured by the OEM and asking companies to re-imagine the parts as composites-intensive designs. Participating companies had approximately five weeks to complete the project from the time the challenge was issued to their presentation at the Composites Technology Day. “To do a good job really required the support of multiple companies,” says Halsband. “No single company could do it justice.”

Dana Miloagă agrees. “Unless a company happened to have worked on a related concept, it was very difficult for anyone to respond by themselves,” says Miloagă, product leader for composites at Johns Manville. “We reached out to other companies in our network for specific topics, particularly regarding manufacturability because one of Ford’s requirements for the part was that it can be manufactured in large numbers per year. We wanted to show that the concept we proposed, from a material and manufacturing perspective, met that requirement.”