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Composites impact on metalworking.

The evolution of nonmetallic materials-composites, structural plastics, ceramics-continues. The face of metalworking is changing. How much further will the shift go?-What will be the impact on the companies, employees, and vendors in what we once considered the traditional metalworking industries?

With new applications of structural plastics and advanced composite (SP/AC) materials being announced almost daily in the automotive and aerospace industries, you might think that everyone in metalworking manufacturing expects a deluge of metal-replacing materials substitutions.

Not necessarily, at least in the near-term. According to the latest survey of T&P readers, 67% of the respondents see the near-term threat to metals of SP/AC materials as "minor" and 27% see it as "major."

That opinion shifts somewhat dramatically when plastic usage is projected ten years into the future-of 50% the respondents say that the threat will be "major" and 43% say it will be "minor."

Though there is a general awareness of the present and future competitive threat to metals, 60% of the survey respondents say that it will take their companies several years to catch up, and 16% believe it will take even longer. The most optimistic 14% believe it will take a minimum of several months. The survey reveals a general unpreparedness among manufacturing engineers to handle the new SP/AC materials. When asked their level of training and experience in plastic/composite technology, 57% said "none" and 38% said "limited." When asked whether they personally felt a need for training for this technology, the answers were 44% "no"; 45% "eventually"; and 11% "yes."

One respondent to the survey posed the proposition quite clearly: "This technology is advancing and people better wake up." Another engineering manager for a maker of metal hinges was more specific: "Our company is feeling increasing competitive pressures from plastic hinges."

Gaining an edge by paring production and labor costs through such advantages of near-net or net shaping and the ability to consolidate a substantial number of parts into one is a major advantage in conversions from metals to these materials.

Net shaping, whether of nonmetals or metals, eliminates or substantially reduces the need for machining. Part consolidation reduces the number of parts that need to be machined, and, even where some machining is needed (as with composites), requirements are typically confined to such simple operations as drilling and sawing.

One adjustment manufacturers face: composite materials are hard on tools, and tool life is short.

Don Carmichael, general manager of CompositAir, Newbury Park, CA, a custom fabricator of composite parts for military, commercial, aircraft, and medical applications, cites advances that have been made since the first composite tennis racquet frames were produced in countries like Taiwan. "By our standards, labor costs were prohibitive because each racquet required two hours of hand finishing. Today, we can net shape these parts. No finishing is required, and costs are reduced accordingly."

Promotes innovation

Another dividend of adopting SP/AC technology is that it opens the door further to innovation. What one can do with SP/AC materials often cannot be matched by metals.

That versatility has led to continued steady growth in usage in the automotive industry. The average North American car will carry 264 lb of plastic in the year 2000, up from 225 lb in 1990, according to Stephen M Long, marketing development programs manager, Du Pont Automotive Products. Key drivers in automotive usage will be fuel economy, stringent vehicle emission standards, and response to consumer demands for safety, styling, and convenience.

There is no doubt that the public perception of plastics has changed. The materials are no longer equated with substandard quality. One automaker observes: "You no longer hear, `Is this metal or plastic?' The distinction is disappearing."

In fact, quite the contrary is true. SP/AC materials seem to have a touch of marketing magic about them. One manufacturing engineering survey respondent in the consumer products industry observes: "Composites can be used as a marketing tool... whether or not a physical advantage actually exists." And when there is an advantage, as in the case of graphite composite shafts for golf clubs, it represents a unique marketing opportunity for the manufacturer.

Getting into using SP/AC materials

Cashing in on the benefits of SP/AC materials is another matter, particularly for the first-time user of these materials. He is confronted by a number of tough questions.

Where do you go to get expert help in making go/no-go decisions? Can the part be made inhouse? Does outsourcing make more sense? How quickly do we need to act?

Qualified help is available. Organizations like Battelle Memorial Institute, Columbus, OH, and A T Kearney Inc, Chicago, IL, do feasibility studies for manufacturers. And you can draw upon the expertise and contacts of professional societies such as the Composites Manufacturing Association of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers, Dearborn, MI; and the Society for the Advancement of Materials and Process Engineering, Covina, CA. (See page 50 for more contacts).

First-time users of SP/AC materials could buy off-the-shelf commodities such as bolt-on plastic or composite components to gain experience with the materials. This a low-risk strategy. Or they could combine in-house and outsource manufacturing with the goal of eventually phasing out outsourcing. Finding the skilled help necessary for in-house production may be a problem. Design engineers, in particular, are in critical short supply, and effective conversion from metals calls for part redesign.

Farming out to shops specializing in partmaking and related services is a popular and attractive alternative, especially when in-house equipment capability and the level of engineering know-how and training leave something to be desired.

Farming out the work is a way of avoiding the burden of capital equipment costs and the need to find people qualified to manage and run it. Starting from scratch can take months, even years, to get up to speed in this technology.

Custom fabricators offer a wide range of services that can help any first-time user of composite materials, says CompositAir's Don Carmichael.

"The customer designates the part and tells us what properties are wanted," he says. "We take full responsibility for materials; for part design if it's a new part; or for part redesign if it's a conversion; and for product development and process development and manufacture."

One recent CompositAir conversion: an investment-cast metal fuel-pump housing for jet engines was converted to a carbon-fiber-reinforced epoxy part, using a trapped rubber partmaking process. Weight was reduced. The part was molded to net shape, eliminating the need for machining; and the use of molded-metal inserts eliminated drilling operations.

Partial conversion from metal to composite materials for a hand-held tool by Chicago Pneumatic Tool Co, Utica, NY, highlights the cost savings possible. The development of this new product was driven by the fact that the metals we traditionally used accounted for 90% of the total cost target," explains John Glorioso, VP of manufacturing. Composite materials are used for the tool's housing and handle. After redesign, 90% of the tool is formed to net shape. Machining is confined to the tool's metal rotor. And other savings were realized through consolidation of five parts into one for the handle.

A big selling point of the new tool is based on ergonomics, a term relating to user-friendly attributes such as heft and feel. "In field trials, users were not even aware that the tool has composite material parts," says Mr Glorioso.

In-house production was ruled out initially, because the company and its engineering staff did not have the first-hand experience or training needed to go the do-it-yourself route. Ultimately, production will be brought in-house. A minimum sales volume of 30,000 parts a year is needed to make buying production equipment feasible, Mr Glorioso says.

Investment necessary for molds and tooling is often a deciding factor in shifting to nonmetal construction. Such high costs require high volumes to justify the expense. Development work extended over a period of a year and a half. Farmed out were part redesign, product development, process development, and partmaking. Some Chicago Pneumatic personnel (such as marketing and purchasing people, product designers, and manufacturing engineers) had to learn enough about the technology to deal with the fabricator in meaningful terms. Qualified fabricators, incidentally, are said to be in short supply.

Innovating industries

The aerospace and automotive industries are the leading innovators and users of sophisticated SP/AC materials technology. Impacts of these materials on the aerospace industry tend to differ from those of the auto industry. In military aerospace applications, performance is the most important factor. Cost is secondary. In commercial aircraft construction, cost is a key factor, along with long life-on the order of 30 to 40 years.

Weight saving is critical in both aerospace and auto applications, but cost reduction has the number-one priority in the auto industry; and high priority is also given to product appearance, styling, safety, and protection against corrosion. In the aerospace industry, these materials compete chiefly with aluminum and titanium; while in automotive the competition is mainly with steels, aluminum, and zinc in die-casting applications.

Of course, usage of these materials is accompanied by a number of negative impacts, which must be accommodated largely via ingenuity on the part of all users.

These materials cost more than metals. Economies are realized through creative design and know-how in processing. At the moment, however, there is an urgent need for better design data and for further refinements in processing technology. Both of these challenges are currently being addressed by the auto industry, as is recycling-this technology's Achilles' heel from day one.

General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler have joined forces to form what they call the Automotive Composites Consortium. "One company does not have the total resources needed to handle such an undertaking on its own," explains the current chairman of the consortium, Dr Elio Eusebi, who heads up polymer research at GM's Tech Center in Warren, MI.

R&D is aimed at opening up new routes to effective design and the removal of roadblocks in processing. The essential first step in the program is to develop a reliable database on materials properties generated by suppliers of these materials. The consortium has distributed a manual to suppliers that specifies material-test methods for standardizing test data, along the same lines as similar data available from suppliers of metals for years. Also, certain test procedures are spelled out to make it easier for designers to interpret the significance of scatter in material-property data.

Other phases of the R&D program concern such topics as processing parts, crash-energy management, and material characterization. In this instance, automakers have entered into agreements with six leading suppliers of structural composite parts and fabricators of parts, including Aluminum Company of America, which has a division specializing in composite processing R&D.

Some progress has been made in recycling, and further advances are in sight.

Thermoplastics, which represent half of the plastics family, can be and are recycled on a regular basis. junked injection-molded parts, for example, can be ground up and put back through injection molding machines to make second-generation parts.

Thermosets are the current hangup. They char, rather than melt. Composites, which range from plastic/plastic to plastic/metal or ceramic combinations, are also getting attention. The challenges here are similar to those in mining materials from junked cars. Ease of dismantling and segregation of materials are important considerations of research into joining methods and design concepts. Most observers believe that recycling will be the fastest growing segment of the plastics industry over the next four or five years.

Too little experience

The T&P reader survey reveals that about nine out of ten respondents (3000 manufacturing engineers and their managers were sent questionnaires) have little or no experience or training in plastics/composites technology. And close to half of these people do not foresee a need for formal training at this time.

Exacerbating this shortfall is a chronic shortage of qualified engineers of all types. "The shortage of skilled designers is especially critical," declares GM's Dr Eusebi. Design, along with part-processing know-how, are the keys to success in conversions from metals. . . which usually require redesign."

Skill shortages have yet another impact: they are a strong factor in the trend toward outsourcing. The knowledge gap here is accompanied by a second major impact on engineers. Effective usage of these materials favors adoption of the simultaneous engineering concept, which requires a team made up of both technical and nontechnical people in a manufacturing company. The manufacturing engineer is the star player on this team. Here's how Detlef Koska, principal, A T Kearney, sees his role:

"He (the manufacturing engineer) is the quarterback, and he calls the signals... his depth skills include the traditional technical engineering disciplines. His breadth skills include nontechnical capabilities such as effective communication, foreign-language proficiency (because he must be able to function in a global economy), teamwork, and the ability to deal with broader business issues."

Members of the model team are enlisted from all parts of the manufacturing organization: marketing, sales, human resources, business/economics, financial/accounting, legal, purchasing, logistics, strategic planning, design engineering, facilities planning, and manufacturing engineering.

Impacts on suppliers

In comparison with the general situation in much of this country's manufacturing industry, a number of its traditional suppliers are responding to the impacts of plastics and composites on their businesses in a timely manner and in a variety of ways.

Major impacts on the machine-tool and tooling industries are cited by William P Koster, president, Metcut Research Associates Inc, Materials Engineering Div, Cincinnati, OH. An excellent example of supplier response is provided by Cincinnati Milacron, also of Cincinnati.

Metcut's Mr Koster states, "The field of metal removal is continuously changing, being influenced recently by the emergence of net-shape technology, the continual evolution in difficult-to-machine alloys, and the proliferation of composite materials."

He adds, "Global competition, plus the difficulty of machining high-temperature alloys and some composite materials, provide a constant incentive for the development of new tool materials, coatings, and tool surface treatments."

The impact on the metalworking machine-tool industry is also being felt. Albert W Moore, president, NMTBA-The Association for Manufacturing Technology, Washington, agrees that the erosion of traditional machining continues. He tells T&P that, earlier in his career, while he was working with Gleason, the machine-tool manufacturer, he even lived through some of the impact.

He explained that many of the small metal gears that were being cut on Gleason machines were being redesigned into plastic and powder-metal parts and that demand for the machines dried up. He indicated that trend will continue in many other areas as the search for more cost-effective ways to manufacture components continues and moves away from metals and toward structural plastics and composites.

Cincinnati Milacron has not only maintained its leadership position, but, over the course of about a decade, has also managed to attain a world-class position as a supplier of equipment and related services essential to the development and manufacture of plastic and composite parts.

What this means to manufacturing industry is improved domestic availability of:

* Injection-molding and blow-molding machines for the production of plastic parts.

* Equipment used in the fabrication of composite materials and parts, such as a line of highly automated tape-lamination machinery and a variety of software for such functions as machine programming and graphic display for design.

* Contract services for R&D on the application of certain composite materials and the preparation of materials for subsequent processing operations such as forming.

* Training services, available from the company's training department. Milacron also sponsors seminars and actively participates in trade shows such as those of the Society for the Advancement of Materials and Process Engineering.

In addition, Milacron is among the pioneers in the application of the simultaneous-engineering concept, and the firm makes this know-how available to others. It should be noted that some responses of suppliers to the impacts of plastics and composites competition can have undesirable impacts on customers. For example, defensive actions by suppliers, such as abandoning fading markets or diversifying into new ones, can have the effect of weakening the domestic supply base.

A plan of action for the steel industry is set forth by Edward Kottcamp, Jr, group VP, SPS Technologies Inc, Newtown, PA.

"Product research on traditional materials such as carbon and alloy steels will need to be focused on their generic deficiencies that make these materials most vulnerable to competitive materials... such as fracture sensitivity and resistance to corrosion... R&D managers will have to search for ways to accelerate the introduction of new products."

The competitive situation in aluminum has heated up, says Peter R Bridenbaugh, VP of R&D, Aluminum Company of America, Alcoa Center, PA. "The conservative, comfortable atmosphere that characterized the aluminum industry in most of its first century has been replaced by intense international competition... driven by the recognition that critical improvements in product performance are limited to the materials available... ceramics, polymers, laminates, and composites are emerging as strong new competitors of aluminum at an alarming rate."

One of Alcoa's responses to the materials competition has been the establishment of its Composites Manufacturing Center. Alcoa is also participating in the Automotive Composites Consortium. And the company is also taking part in a composite-manufacturing demonstration with McDonnell Douglas Space Systems Co, Huntington Beach, CA.

Another supplier, Alcan Aluminum Ltd, has entered the processing side of the business via acquisition. Its satellite company, Duralcan USA, San Diego, CA, is regarded as a leading fabricator of aluminum-matrix composites. Alcan supplies the aluminum.

The knowledge suppliers

Suppliers of services to the metalworking manufacturing industry are also feeling the impacts of the materials competition.

The American Society for Metals, an international professional society known for its technical education services, has changed its name to ASM International. The "M" which formerly stood for "metals" now stands for "materials." And that includes structural plastics and advanced composites.

The addition of "international" is in recognition that the materials community is now global in nature. As a final touch, the society has changed the name of its location from Metals Park to Materials Park. Professional societies have been sensitive to the new training and educational needs in the manufacturing industry stemming from the materials competition. Their services include the publication of handbooks and technical books; sponsorship of technical conferences, and seminars tailored for both the professional and nonprofessionals with a need to know; trade shows affording a first-hand look at state-of-the-art technology; inhouse and tutorial training programs; and continuing education courses for engineers and other interested personnel, ranging in scope from the basics of plastics and composites technology to specific topics of timely concern.

Representative suppliers, in addition to ASM International (ASM), include the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME), and the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE). Examples of their interest include these recent offerings: ASM offers a continuing education course on "Plastics Technology for the Nonprofessional." SME recently sponsored a technical conference on "Tooling for Composites '91."

SAE recently presented a series of seminars on topics such as "Fracture Mechanics of Composites Structures."

Editor's note: Author Harry Chandler has followed and written about the evolution of materials for many years. He is retired from ASM International but still represents it on several materials standards committees.


The competitive threat of structural plastics and composites to metals in traditional applications is seen as growing. While only 28% of the respondents feel it is a "major" problem currently (67% checked "minor" and 5% see no threat), almost twice that number (50%) see them as "major" competition in 10 years (a lesser 43% checked minor" and 7% see no threat in a decade).

* A quarter of the respondents (24%) feel the growing use of plastic and composite materials is having a "major" effect on their job; 57% see the effect as being only "minor" and 19% perceive no effect.

* Almost six-out-of-ten of the respondents (57%) admit to having no experience in those material technologies; 38% say they have limited experience. Only 5% claim to have extensive training and experience. Even so, 44% feel no need for training; 45% say they'll need it eventually. Only 11% feel any urgency to do it "soon."

* The task of catching up is formidable. 60% of the respondents feel it would take "several years" for their companies to acquire the needed plastic and composite technology if they started from scratch; 16% feel it would take even longer. One-out-of-four (24%) are optimistic that the job could be done in "months."

* As such, 70% of those replying report their firms are farming out 100% of their plastic and composite fabrication requirements.


The following organizations are representative of those to call or write for authoritative information about plastics and composites. Many also offer a range of services, including reference and technical books, journals and magazines, directories of consultants and fabricating services, literature searches, seminars and technical conferences, tutorial and continuing education courses, and in-plant training: Society of the Plastics Industry Reinforced Plastics/ Composites Institute

355 Lexington Ave

New York, NY 10017

Phone: 211-503-0600 Composites Manufacturing Association of Society of Manufacturing Engineers One SME Dr P O Box 930 Dearborn, MI 48121-0930 Phone: 313-271-1500 Society for the Advancement of Material and Process Engineering 843 W Glentana P O Box 2459 Covina, CA 91722 Phone: 818-331-0616 Society of Plastics Engineers

14 Fairfield Dr

Brookfield, CT 06805

Phone: 203-775-0471 National Technical Information Service

Springfield, VA 22161

Phone: 703-487-4600 ASM International

Materials Park, OH 44073

Phone: 216-338-5151 Society of Automotive Engineers

400 Commonwealth Dr

Warrendale, PA 15096

Phone: 412-776-4841 Society of Testing and Materials

1916 Race St

Philadelphia, PA 19103

Phone: 215-299-5585
COPYRIGHT 1991 Nelson Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:contains related articles
Author:Chandler Harry
Publication:Tooling & Production
Date:Sep 1, 1991
Previous Article:Artificial intelligence continues to blossom.
Next Article:Bending automation: flexibility without tooling.

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