THE FUTURE OF COMPOSITES

«The benefits of composites are still unexplored»

Interview to Silvio Fulgenzi, Business Development Manager for Automotive in Italy of Solvay Composite Materials

di NICOLA CATENARO

CompositesPortal and PortaleCompositi continue to explore the future of composites. We asked Silvio Fulgenzi, Business Development Manager for Automotive in Italy of Solvay Composite Materials, what he thinks about it.

Silvio Fulgenzi, are composites still an innovative sector for the automotive market?
«The automotive industry has utilized high-end composites like continuous carbon fiber for several decades now, particularly within supercar and racing car applications. It has always made sense for those applications to use composites thanks to lower investment, shorter development times, higher design freedom and maximized performance. Moving from niche applications to higher volume applications is where the current innovation lies and will require the coordination of many aspects in order to progress. This progress includes capabilities in design and simulation, availability of a reliable supply chain and an affordable TCO (total cost of ownership, that means final cost, including investments, raw materials and transformation, ed.). The adoption of composites by this market segment will require commitment and bold decisions from all involved parties. Early adopters have taken risks and reaped the benefits composites can bring».

Will the usage of composite materials continue to grow in your opinion?
«I do think so; if we look at the trend in recent years, the replacement of metal by composite materials in mid-to high volume applications - hundreds to thousands of parts per year - keeps growing. The aerospace industry is paving the way by increasing the use of composites within next-generation planes. With very steep ramp rates their demand for composite materials is very high. But the automotive industry is different and requires much shorter development time».

In which way?
«Automotive OEMs looking to adopt composites into high volume applications are starting off with a safer approach by initially introducing composites into body panels. These initial steps fit within special series as it allows the supply chain to industrialize on less critical parts, with lower volumes and lower crashworthiness issues. Furthermore, special series have a greater appeal, higher perceived value for the end customer and allows for a more sculpted design, justifying the adoption of composites. If fully proven, OEMs will be more confident in fully maximising the benefits composites can bring to primary structures. Another category where we see strong potential for composites is represented by functional parts, such as suspensions, dashboards, pedals and engine bay sub-assembly, especially for thermoplastic composites. Solvay has a unique offering of thermoset and thermoplastic solutions to propose for future automotive applications and has been working for years on its industrialization strategy; including developing fast processing technologies such as its diaphragm forming technology (DDF). Solvay has now fully automated the DDF process to enable the manufacture of a complex composite part in sub 3 minutes, from a flat blank of continuous fiber thermoset prepreg, in a single press molding step, with closed metal tooling, in a similar way of sheet metal forming. On the thermoplastic front, we are able to combine continuous fiber skins with back injected compound overmolded, to widen the types of structures that can be converted from metal to composites and increase the capabilities of integration».

What kind of materials, in your opinion, could substitute the composite materials in terms of lightness and resistance?
«Interesting question; the full potential of composite materials definitely hasn’t been fully explored yet... I think this is more complex than simply substituting different materials, I believe that in the future we will be looking at a whole new generation of composites. Lighter and more resilient composites that will act and perform differently thanks to a combination of new polymers and different natures of fibers, including biomaterials».

How the growth of electric cars is changing the vision of industrial sector in the world?
«Electrification and autonomous driving are forcing the entire market to revise their paradigms and change their way of thinking. Long established solutions, including materials, will no longer be enough to match the new requirements. Tesla as a new player in the automotive industry have clearly demonstrated how changes in mindset can inspire and guide this revolution. This is a unique opportunity to push for innovation and further introduce composite materials into new car architectures».

The most important challenge of your job looking at the future.
«Educating the market on the full scope of what benefits composites can bring, from lightweighting to structural integration, environmental resistance, longer fatigue life, higher design freedom and multi-functionality, to list just a few. As there are a multitude of resin matrices and possible fiber combinations, composites can offer a real opportunity in terms of tailoring specific solutions for our customers. Managing this complexity requires the right mindset and coordination of the entire ecosystem. This complexity is why at Solvay we always support our customers in all aspects: we believe that design-process-materials are all linked. Our application centers - in Heanor-UK for Thermosets and Brussels-Belgium for Thermoplastics - are innovation excellence facilities where solutions are rigorously tested prior to being launched into the market. Customers are able to collaborate with us on trials to discover the most effective metal replacement solutions for their requirements».

Silvio Fulgenzi graduated in 1998 in Mechanical engineering at L’Aquila; he started his career in ATR srl (Tier1 for composite parts), managing for seven years a range of automotive projects, such as the Ferrari Enzo, Audi R8 Le Mans and Lamborghini Murcielago. Then he moved to a motor-yacht company as Technical Director of the Composite plant; same position covered also in Sparco for four years, before moving in 2011 to Cytec (Solvay Group), as R&D Application Engineer and then as Business Development Manager for Italy.

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