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Increasing sustainability of composites critical to the future of the manufacturing industry

Finding new and innovative ways to manufacture composites is currently a huge aspiration of the engineering industry, with many companies looking to gain a competitive edge through increased efficiency in production methods.

Although composites are already regularly developed as a more sustainable option to a more commonly-used materials, such as mass-produced steel and aluminium, strides forward in the production of composites that are progressively longer lasting and environmentally friendly are continuing to be made.

With this in mind, we have examined the industries benefiting from composite materials, in order to provide an insight into their uses and what can be done to make them even more sustainable.

How important have composites become in the automotive industry?

There are a number of different types of composite materials used frequently in the automotive industry. Examples include fibre-reinforced plastics (FRPs), which have a primary component of carbon fibre, and are commonly used in making internal and external components for vehicles.

There are distinct advantages to using such materials over traditional substances like steel. The application of composites, such as FRPs or thermoplastic materials, offers a structural and weight advantage, as the compound is both stronger and lighter than historical materials.

Not only that, but they are more sustainable, producing zero-solvent emissions and reducing the amount of scrap material produced by this industry.[1] This is a key advantage as it helps meet the main challenge facing the automotive industry at present, – finding ways to dismantle and recycle vehicles in and environmentally friendly way.


ELG Carbon is a major player in the composites industry and has a strong foothold in the automotive manufacturing process. They have a large UK site in the West Midlands and, as a business, facilitate the use of carbon fibre in emerging, high volume applications.

They do this by converting manufacturing waste and end-of-life components into cost effective carbon fibre structural materials that are utilised by the automotive and transportation services.

ELG’s Carbiso carbon fibre products are used in the production in cars, boats, aerospace and rail services, and it has recently developed a ground-breaking carbon fibre rail bogie[2], the first of its kind, which marks a significant step forward for the railway industry in terms of efficiency and environmental impact.

The business plays its own part in a huge composite market in the automotive industry, set for exponential growth in the next six years. In 2019, the market value was £6.47 billion, but it is forecast to reach £14.15 billion by 2025[3].

The developing reliance on composites manufacturing in aerospace

Technological advancements in the production of aeroplanes have led to the use of composites, evolving from the reinforcement of secondary components, to being used in large quantities as the primary structures of aircraft.

Composite materials such as Kevlar, carbon fibre and glass fibre are prevalent because they are stronger and lighter than aluminium, which has historically been one of the most commonly-used materials in the construction of the fuselage of planes.

Specifically, glass-reinforced plastics (GRPs), also known as fibreglass, and FRPs are used due to the fact that they are non-corrosive and resistant to high levels of impact, as well as being extremely lightweight. They were first used on a Boeing model aircraft in the 1950s.

More recently, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner became the first commercial plane to be constructed from 50% composite materials[4].

Currently, developments are ongoing. The National Composites Centre, based in Bristol, is using the digital capability acquisition programme (iCAP) technology to develop automated fibre cutting techniques. This will reduce cycle times and waste on materials, such as fibreglass, commonly used in the production of aeroplane wings[5].

With so much emphasis being placed on the application of composites in aerospace engineering, the appetite to streamline the production process is increasing. The market value of aerospace composite materials was valued at £8.89 billion globally in 2015 and is expected to inflate to £19.18billion by 2025[6].


The future of construction composites and why they are evolving

Composite application in the construction industry ranges from reinforcing pressure pipes within structures, to making up the primary components of many modern-day foot, road and railway bridges.

Thermoset composites and FRPs are now cornerstone components of many architectural projects as they save on build time due to the materials being lighter and easier to manoeuvre. Equally, their increased durability and lifespan reduces the cost of maintenance and upkeep as well as reducing waste and the need to replace components[7].

An example of a construction project underpinned by the use of composites is the ongoing Emersons Green East Cycle Footbridge project in Bristol. Construction company WSP has partnered with Optima Projects to develop a design composed almost entirely of composite materials.

Rather than using standard metals such as steel, iron and concrete, the bridge is being constructed with carbon fibre-reinforced polymer (CFRP) for the arch ribs, which will support a deck made entirely of FRPs. The finished product will be built from materials that are better equipped to stand the test of time, much cheaper to manufacture and that have a much smaller impact on the environment.

This project, which is due to be fully completed in 2020, is just one of many construction designs being effectively utilised across the industry.

In 2013, the Construction 2025 strategy set the goal of reducing the timeline of build projects by 50% and reducing costs by a third[8]. This has since been built on by the most recent Construction Sector Deal[9], published in 2018 which maps out the government aim of a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in the built environment, which underlines the expanding demand for lower-cost materials.

Why it is important to keep making progress

With the composite market set to continue to expand at an impressive rate, the use of these materials will grow, while discussions continue around what further innovations can be made to help make composites even more sustainable and less impactful on the environment.

At this year’s Advanced Engineering event, representatives from some of the biggest companies in the composite manufacturing sector, such as Paul Spencer from Gruit and Martin Wright from Polynt Composites, contributed a lively debate on the matter.

And, with less than 1% of composites in the UK currently recycled, many firms are reviewing their own product recycling processes in order to cut down on waste, which is a big priority of the UK government laid out one of its Grand Challenges to achieve continual but clean growth.[10]

The use of automated production and smart technologies, which can forecast the amount of materials required for production, are becoming more commonplace through the development of Industry 4.0 and are just a couple of examples of techniques being developed and adopted across the composite industry.

These companies are playing their part to preserve our future; let’s find out how we can help support your journey and your business.



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