Out of autoclave composite manufacturing
This article has multiple issues. Please help improve it or discuss these issues on the talk page. (Learn how and when to remove these template messages)(Learn how and when to remove this template message)
Out of autoclave composite manufacturing is an alternative to the traditional high pressure autoclave (industrial) curing process commonly used by the aerospace manufacturers for manufacturing composite material. Out of autoclave (OOA) is a process that achieves the same quality as an autoclave but through a different process. Spirit Aerosystems believes it could produces fuselages and nacelles for airliners 40% quicker and at up to half the cost by removing the autoclave bottleneck.
- 1 Out of autoclave manufacturing processes
- 2 Resin transfer molding - RTM
- 3 Same Qualified Resin Transfer Molding (SQRTM)
- 4 Vacuum assisted RTM (VARTM)
- 5 Balanced pressure fluid molding
- 6 Prepreg compression molding
- 7 References
Out of autoclave manufacturing processes
OOA curing achieves the desired fiber content and elimination of voids by placing the layup within a closed mold and applying vacuum, pressure, and heat by means other than an autoclave. An RTM press is the typical method of applying heat and pressure to the closed mold. There are several out of autoclave technologies in current use including resin transfer molding (RTM), Same Qualified Resin Transfer Molding (SQRTM), vacuum-assisted resin transfer molding (VARTM), and balanced pressure fluid molding. The most advanced of these processes can produce high-tech net shape aircraft components.
Autoclave curing process (for comparison purposes)
In the production of composite aerospace and aircraft components, autoclave curing has traditionally been used to achieve the desired fiber content (resin-to-fiber ratio) and the absence of resin voids to produce light weight and strong components. Autoclave curing achieves this by placing the part under vacuum in an autoclave and then pressurizing the autoclave during the heated cure cycle. The high pressure on the part (within the pressurized autoclave) helps to minimize resin voids and to achieve the desired resin/fiber ratio.
Autoclave cure process details
Autoclaves are utilized where the highest of material performance standards are required such as a void content of less than 2% and high glass transition temperatures. Aerospace autoclaves normally operate from 120 to 230 degrees Celsius within a nitrogen environment at 7 bars of pressure. Liquid nitrogen is injected into the heated autoclave to create the internal pressure. Most common materials cured in an autoclave are advanced composites such as carbon fiber and epoxy resins. Curing cycles range from 90 minutes to 12 hours.
Resin transfer molding - RTM
Resin transfer molding (RTM) is a method of fabricating high-tech composite structures. The RTM process is capable of consistently producing composite parts with high strength, complex geometries, tight dimensional tolerances, and part quality typically required of aerospace applications. RTM uses a closed mold commonly made of aluminum. A fiber "layup" such as graphite is placed into the mold. The mold is closed, sealed, heated, and placed under vacuum. Heated resin is injected into the mold to impregnate the fiber layup. Having the mold heated and under vacuum, as in Vacuum Assisted Resin Transfer Molding (VARTM) assists the resin flow. The mold is then held at a temperature sufficient to cure the resin. Current RTM technology produces lightweight parts with excellent mechanical properties. With these qualities, composite materials are gaining wide use in a variety of structural and non-structural applications common in aerospace and aviation. RTM is one method of fabricating these composite structures.
RTM resin injectors - positive displacement injectors
RTM requires an injection apparatus capable of injecting resin at a high pressure and temperature. One method of injecting epoxy for RTM fabrication is a positive displacement injection system. In the positive displacement injection system, resin is placed into a special cylinder. The bottom of the cylinder is a movable piston. A degassing process can be conducted after loading the resin into the cylinder by sealing the cylinder and applying a vacuum. The piston can move up the cylinder to decrease cylinder volume and force resin out a tube and into the mold. The piston is connected to an actuator. The actuator pushes the piston up the cylinder forcing the resin out at high pressure through tubing and into the mold. Positive displacement injectors have the advantages of precise control over resin pressure, flow rate, and temperature control. It also allows for resin de-gassing.
Same Qualified Resin Transfer Molding (SQRTM)
SQRTM is a closed mold composites manufacturing method similar to RTM (Resin Transfer Molding). "Same Qualified" refers to this method injecting the same resin as that used in the prepreg layup. The attributes of "same qualified" are significant to a manufacturer because those who adopt this process need not re-qualify resin materials for their production process. SQRTM Process: Liquid molding + prepreg What sets SQRTM apart from standard resin transfer molding (RTM) is that, in place of a dry fiber preform, it substitutes a prepreg layup.
SQRTM Fabrication Process
SQRTM is an RTM process adapted to prepreg technology. The prepreg is placed in a closed mold and during the cure cycle, a small amount of resin is injected into the cavity through ports positioned around the part. This resin does not go into the laminate, but only presses up against the edge of the laminate in order to establish hydrostatic pressure on the prepreg, similar to the goal of autoclave curing. This pressure is similar to the autoclave, on the order of 6-7 bars (90-100 psi). Hydrostatic pressure minimizes voids by keeping dissolved air, water and resin monomers in solution in the resin. The tool can either be self-clamped and self-heated or heated and clamped by a press. The equipment is composed of a tool, a press, an injector, and a vacuum pump.
Process factors that improve SQRTM quality
The following are key factors in the SQRTM process that enable this process to achieve consistent "autoclave quality" components without the autoclave.
- Precision machined closed mold tooling (RTM mold or "tool")
- Large high pressure platen type press to clamp the tool and contain the pressures within the tool
- Extremely high vacuum applied to the tool interior
- Electrically heated platens in contact with the tool for efficient heat transfer
- Precise control of heating platens
- Precise control of injected resin volume, heat, and pressure
The advantages are:
- the use of qualified prepregs – toughened resins, UD reinforcements
- a high level of integration
- tight tolerances
- surface finish according to the molding process.
- higher tool cost
- a lower level of flexibility to design changes
Example SQRTM Components
Examples of complex, one-piece components fabricated with the SQRTM method include:
- The wingtip extensions for the RQ-1B Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV)
- A prototype cabin roof for the Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter. This roof component is not only the roof of the cabin, it is also the mounting structure for the engine and transmission.
New out-of-autoclave process combines resin transfer molding with prepregs for complex helicopter roof prototype.
The SQRTM method has been employed successfully in several aerospace projects, including the wingtip extensions for the RQ-1B Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). But its toughest test, to date, was an extremely complex, one-piece prototype helicopter cabin roof, produced under the Survivable Affordable Repairable Airframe Program (SARAP), a cooperative agreement between Sikorsky Aircraft (Stratford, Conn.) and the U.S. Army Aviation Applied Technology Directorate (AATD, Ft. Eustis, Va.).
Vacuum assisted RTM (VARTM)
VARTM is one of three processing alternatives that proponents claim can achieve aerospace-grade results without resort to autoclave cure. VARTM denotes a variety of related resin infusion processes now commonly used in the marine, transportation and infrastructure markets. The processes differ radically from prepreg processing in that fiber reinforcements and core materials are laid up dry in a one-sided mold and vacuum bagged. Liquid resin is then introduced through one or more ports strategically placed in the mold, and drawn by vacuum through the reinforcements by means of a series of designed-in channels and/or carefully placed infusion media that facilitate fiber wetout. Unlike the autoclave, VARTM cure requires neither high heat nor high pressure. VARTM's comparatively low-cost tooling makes it possible to inexpensively produce large, complex parts in one shot, such as the tail on the Mitsubishi Regional Jet.
Balanced pressure fluid molding
Balanced pressure molding using fluid as the heat transfer is commercially practiced as the 'quickstep' process. This process, however, lacks the high pressures of RTM or autoclave curing so does not typically achieve the high quality associated with aerospace and autoclave curing. This process allows for the curing, partial curing, and joining of composite materials. The process involves a fluid-filled, pressure balanced, heated floating mould technology. The heated floating mold technology used within the process works by rapidly applying heat to the laminate which is trapped between a free floating rigid or semi-rigid mold that floats in, and is surrounded by, a heat transfer fluid (HTF). The mold and laminate become separated from the circulating HTF by a flexible membrane. The part, typically under full vacuum, is subject to less than 3 psi (20 kPa) fluid pressure and can be rapidly heated to the desired cure temperature without risk of catastrophic exothermic reaction. The air is then removed under vacuum and the laminate is compacted and heated until the part is cured.
A flexible membrane beneath the mold is bonded into a pressure chamber creating the lower half of a 'clamshell' or 'chamber' like mold set. A second flexible membrane is bonded to a second pressure chamber creating the upper half of the clamshell. These pressure chambers are clamped together during processing, permitting the laminate to be compressed while reducing stress to the mold as it is floating in a balanced pressure environment within the HTF.
The process can use thermosetting, thermoplastic prepregs (pre-impregnated composite fibers), and wet resin with dry fiber to produce superior composite parts. This out of autoclave process can achieve aerospace grade void contents of less than 2%, with extremely fast cycle times, and at significantly lower pressures and lower labor costs than many alternative autoclave production systems using many typical autoclave qualified prepregs. The quickstep out of autoclave system is unique in that it uses fully immersed balanced pressure fluid curing and it allows the user to stop the composite cure reaction at any point in the cure cycle, and thus can halt processing on all or part of the laminate and either return to it at a later to complete cure or to co-cure, join and bond other composites to it to create larger parts.
The use of fluid to control temperature, as opposed to the gas generally used within methods such as autoclave and oven curing equates to lower energy consumption, faster cycle times and extremely accurate part temperature control.
Studies have demonstrated that the process may significantly lower overall capital costs and labor costs. Cycle times are one of the most significant differences between quickstep and autoclave processing. The process allows for more repeatability in cure cycles, and rapid heating allows for improved inter-laminar properties and improved surface quality.
Studies have also shown benefits in improved productivity levels due to lower development costs, the ability to manufacture large scale volumes, lower tooling costs, and no waiting on parts to begin cures. The use of fluid heating molding processes allows small and medium composite parts to be rapidly manufactured and cured to aerospace standards without an autoclave. It also allows the marine and automotive industries to manufacture advanced composites and traditional fiberglass composites to standards only previously seen within the aerospace industry.
Prepreg compression molding
Another Out of autoclave method for achieving external compression on prepreg based composite parts is through the use of heat shrink tape. This method, however, does not achieve the high quality of RTM or autoclave processes because without the autoclave or a closed mold, the part must be cured in a non-pressurized oven. These compression tapes are typically made from polyester (PET) film. Heat shrink tape is applied to a composite part prior to the heating, or curing cycle. When heated, the tape will shrink in the linear (machine direction). Heat shrink tape works best on parts that are cylindrical or semi-circular in cross section, as this allows the tape to exert even compaction forces on the part surface. Examples would be composite tubes for aerospace, wind energy, consumer sporting goods, etc. Heat shrink tape allows these parts to be processed without the need to cure with the heat and pressure of an autoclave.
- Alex Derber (Dec 18, 2017). "Out Of Autoclave, Into Production". Aviation Week Network.
- http://www.jeccomposites.com/news/features/rtm-infusion/highly-integrated-structure-manufactured-one-shot-prepreg-ud-tape Cedric De Roover and Bertrand Vaneghem, SABCA (Published on January–February 2011 – JEC Magazine #62)
- H. P. J. de Vries, Development of generic composite box structures with prepreg preforms and RTM, NLR-TP-2002-019, National Aerospace Laboratory NLR, Amsterdam, January 2002.
- Perrett, Bradley. "MRJ Test Program Laid Out As Prototype Revealed" Aviation Week & Space Technology, 27 October 2014. Accessed: 25 October 2014. Archived on 25 October 2014
- Robert M. Jones (1999). Mechanics of Composite Materials (2nd ed.). Taylor & Francis. ISBN 9781560327127.
- Autar K. Kaw (2005). Mechanics of Composite Materials (2nd ed.). CRC. ISBN 0-8493-1343-0.
- Handbook of Polymer Composites for Engineers By Leonard Hollaway Published 1994 Woodhead Publishing
- Matthews, F.L. & Rawlings, R.D. (1999). Composite Materials: Engineering and Science. Boca Raton: CRC Press. ISBN 0-8493-0621-3.