Until just a few years ago, if a vehicle maker wanted to test the process for making a newly designed composite part at full scale, the company’s R&D engineers would call one of its Tier Ones and ask to schedule a trial run on the composites fabricator’s machines during off hours.
How about 2 AM on Christmas Eve?
Today, thanks to investments in Manufacturing USA from Washington, D.C., and several states, those engineers can do trial work in collaboration space for proprietary and pre-competitive projects at the IACMI Scale-Up Research Facility (SURF) in Detroit—and be home in bed while Santa gets ready to make his rounds.
The $50-million facility in Detroit’s Corktown district has key equipment that a manufacturing engineer needs to test at scale, whether he works at a vehicle maker or is an inventor who has created a novel resin and needs to make a part to whet the interest of an OEM or Tier One supplier.
“This has been a longstanding need,” said Ray Boeman, SURF’s director since it opened in October 2017. “The scale of the equipment is so large that companies can’t afford to have them for scale-up testing to answer the last questions before commercialization.”
While the Detroit facility is part of IACMI (Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation), it is co-located with a sister institute, LIFT (Lightweight Innovations for Tomorrow). SURF is run by Michigan State University.
In addition to 50,000 square feet of composites manufacturing space, SURF has workforce development facilities for adults and students. This makes it possible for Boeman’s site to host events, such as one on National Manufacturing Day when Detroit-area schools have brought busloads of students to see demonstrations, participate in hands-on projects and pose questions during ask-an-engineer sessions.
IACMI (pronounced eye-ACKme), which is headquartered in Tennessee, and LIFT are two of 14 public-private institutes run under the Manufacturing USA initiative that was implemented in 2015 to secure America’s future through manufacturing innovation, education and collaboration.
The institute was established with $70 million from the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) and has more than 150 members who pay dues ranging from $1,500 to $15,000, based on organization type and number of employees, with higher financial commitments from some members in return for increased participation in leadership and governance.
Additional partners include state economic development departments, universities, such as MSU, and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
To date, IACMI has recorded 28 completed technical projects and has another 24 projects underway.
Among the 50-plus technical projects facilitated by IACMI in its five-year lifespan is a Volkswagen-led project that resulted in development and molding of a prototype composite liftgate for qualification testing on the vehicle maker’s Atlas SUV.
The project connected innovation resources across four states to collaborate on a large-scale validation that also engaged VW operations in Mexico and Germany, and participants from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, several University of Tennessee campuses, Purdue and Michigan State (MSU) universities, the IACMI/MSU Scale-Up Research Facility in Detroit and supply chain partners.
The Atlas and VW’s Passat sedan are manufactured in VW’s Chattanooga, Tenn., assembly plant, which serves as the future base in North America for the vehicle maker’s electric vehicles.
The institute’s mission is to support the United States’ national interests and competitiveness by growing capacity markets in composites—in not only manufacturing but also material use and greater consideration of the need for recycling, IACMI CEO John Hopkins said.
“These applications directly address energy generation and utilization challenges that are critical for national security and are of interest to the Department of Energy,” he said. “Essentially we want to create a collaborative space to make us more globally competitive.”
For the last five years, IACMI’s technical focus has been on the automotive, wind turbine and compressed gas storage industries, along with the design, modeling, simulation and materials processes those sectors use.
But recently the institute’s technical scope has broadened as it explores ways to ensure its future.
This year marks the end of IACMI’s initial five-year funding from the DoE, but it does receive money from other government organizations and it’s exploring a new funding model.
It is possible the pandemic may help the cause of Manufacturing USA and manufacturing in general.
The virus highlighted the importance of having a strong domestic manufacturing base and resilient and adaptable supply chains, with the ability to employ them for quick response in a crisis, Hopkins said.
“Within the context of American manufacturing, there have been multiple calls over the past month for the potential value of having a national strategy for manufacturing,” he said in an interview in May. “I think COVID-19 does create a context within which that is a little easier to understand and appreciate and certainly that could create opportunities for the manufacturing institutes to play a role in addressing some of those needs.”
The things that IACMI has been working on for the past five years—improving the domestic production base and capacity and enhancing the supply chain’s adaptability and flexibility—are now viewed as significant challenges due to the virus, Hopkins said.
Starting in 2018, IACMI worked with its membership to formally review areas of interest that would align with existing technical focuses, address new market opportunities and benefit from IACMI collaboration models.
As a result, and as the institute moves into what it hopes will be a more sustainable and completely industry-driven form past its initial government funding, its technical focus has broadened to transportation in general and elements that would benefit from the lightweighting power of composites—infrastructure including roads, buildings, bridges and aerospace.
“The innovation that impacts the capacity for high-volume needs (i.e., automotive), where cost and manufacturability are really important, are also important to those markets,” Hopkins said. “So, we see a lot of overlap.”
The day-to-day workings of cost and manufacturability are the passion of Dale Brosius, IACMI’s chief commercialization officer.
“At the end of the day the only thing that really matters is cost,” he said. “All of this good science is great, but it doesn’t matter if we can’t find a way to commercialize it, put it to use and turn it into revenue and profits for American industry.”
If ever there was a materials sector ripe for the efficiency and cost-tamping benefits of Industry 4.0, the composites industry is it, Brosius said.
Composites can be produced via numerous processes, and many variables need to be controlled to achieve repeatable results, more so than forming steel and aluminum sheets or casting of metal parts, he said.
Most composites today are made using thermoset resins, which undergo polymerization in the mold. Therefore, each mold is a chemical reactor that needs to be carefully controlled.
“Because of this, composites offer a fantastic opportunity to deploy the tools of Industry 4.0, especially with the cost of instrumenting and measuring those variables that impact quality falling faster than ever,” Brosius said. “Combining this instrumentation with big data collection and deep learning will lead to increased levels of repeatability and point to ways to reduce both cycle times and costs.”
One of the real gaps is lowering the cycle times to move them closer to the cycle times that automotive manufacturers require, he said. A three-minute cycle gets you closer to 100,000 units a year, and IACMI has achieved that on a number of processes so far.
Producing 100,000 parts a year is the sweet spot to gain entry for use in the automotive industry, Brosius acknowledged.
Materials costs are another IACMI target.
Carbon fiber is a favored material for adding strength and stiffness to plastics, but it’s expensive. That’s why its use so far has been in critical parts for aerospace and in wind turbine blades.
“For automotive manufacturers, it’s a dream material but beyond Formula 1 cars, race cars and Corvettes, Lamborghinis and so forth, it hasn’t had a lot of penetration due to cost,” Brosius said. “And, so, we’re working really hard on driving the cost out of that and improving the scrap rate and utilization so we can overcome those gaps.”
There is another gap IACMI wants to address—the skills gap in the composites industry.
The institute plans to expand the composites technician training program at Davis Technical College, which is based in Utah, to four additional locations across the country, including ones in Alabama and New York, with two additional locations yet to be determined.
To do so, it received a $5 million, three-year grant from the Department of Defense’s Office of Naval Research, and will partner with universities and other education entities, the American Composites Manufacturing Association and a credentialing organization.
“There are key elements of the DTC program that require relationships with industry and the community that are more extensive than traditional programs,” Hopkins said. “The local ecosystem has to have the capacity and commitment to create and support these relationships in addition to the usual delivery infrastructure for training.”
IACMI’s vision is to establish a framework for creating and sustaining workforce programs that are locally owned, built around a formally assessed need, leverage practices/materials that are qualified at a national level, deliver impact to local economies via graduate success, and connect to each other in a national network for continued growth and improvement, he said.
Could be that some of the program’s graduates will work with Ray Boeman, at IACMI’s SURF facility, testing ideas of their own someday.
One way of offsetting the high cost of carbon fiber is through recycling, and IACMI’s goals for re-using materials is what attracted Colorado-based Vartega, a carbon fiber recycler that joined the institute in 2015.
Vartega CEO Andrew Maxey said he is in the final phases of an IACMI-sponsored project that uses his company’s chemical process to harvest the carbon fiber from scrap polymer thermoset matrix prepreg. The carbon fiber is then used to make thermoplastic-based parts.
Through the institute, Vartega was able to partner with Michelman, Ford Motor, BASF, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the Colorado School of Mines, the University of Dayton Research Institute and the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.
“Those are pretty big names, and to have them involved in one project has been critical to moving this forward,” Maxey said. “Everyone’s been able to bring some specialized background and resources to bear to help us achieve success.”
Success for the project means being able to use Nylon 66 with 40 percent recycled carbon fiber that meets Ford’s specifications to injection mold a fender at IACMI’s Scale-Up Research Facility in Detroit.
Maxey’s ultimate hope is that Ford would use the material in its vehicles.
Vartega is also involved in an IACMI-led project to use recycled carbon fiber in sheet molding compound that’s processed through compression molding.
“This is a big part of how we operate—collaboration is the key to success in our minds,” Maxey said. “It’s very rare for any single organization to be able to solve all the problems on their own but as we cooperate, as we work together as teams, we’re that much more effective at addressing these large-scale problems.”
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