From Boeing 787 to BMW I3, advanced manufacturing enables highly sophisticated end-products. Yet future prosperity is threatened by spiralling manufacturing cost and risk. To sustain a resilient advanced manufacturing industry, we must consider the use and practice of this scientific knowledge as much as its creation.

Janna Fabris, PhD Candidate in Materials Engineering

The poignant words in the title, from the T.S. Eliot poem 'The Rock', resonate because they challenge our perceptions towards advanced manufacturing. Advanced composite materials, such as carbon fibre reinforced polymers (CFRP), are an excellent example of a promising technology threatened by manufacturing cost and risk. These light and stiff engineered materials have profound economic and societal impact, enabling reductions in material consumption and environmental footprints. Advanced composites are materials growing in importance -from a traditional use in aerospace to a rapidly increasing demand in automotive, alternative energy and energy storage, infrastructure and consumer mass-markets. In recent years, all major aerospace manufacturers have invested significantly in this technology to deliver sophisticated next-generation commercial aircraft. The development of composite fuel tanks for space-launch vehicles is enabling further advancement of deep-space exploration. Given current battery technology, the use of composites in structural automotive applications is boosting the market-attractiveness for the automotive industry to actively pursue the electric vehicles segment.

The composites conundrum

Although it has been over 50 years since the commercialization of carbon fibre, the composites industry is still considered immature. Despite significant scientific research, most current composites manufacturing design practices rely on both engineering judgement and trial-and-error approaches. These time-intensive, often costly and high-risk practices are not efficient or scalable, particularly as product complexities and production rates increase. Our dependence on this tacit composites manufacturing experience is made worse given the endless explosion of processing, tooling and material design choices.

Since the mid-late 1970s, mastering the fundamental physics of composites processing has evolved from a scientific curiosity to a robust enabling capability. Our understanding of manufacturing science is maturing with tremendous advances in process modelling and simulation (Integrated Computational Materials Engineering and the Materials Genome Initiative) and 'big-data' (the Industrial Internet of Things). However, our ability to transfer knowledge is inefficient and ineffective. Many composites manufacturing outcomes currently exist that cannot be predicted using models or deduced using available production data.

We are knowledgeable, but are we wiser?

Considering the use of CFRP as a proxy, the creation of scientific composites knowledge is keeping pace with the growth of the industry. Yet as we create more and more knowledge, its practical use is less and less obvious. A paradox? There are two telling indicators. Firstly, the time and cost to deliver complex engineering systems to market is increasing. In the 1960’s this activity took 60 months and by the mid 1990’s took 150 months. Current forecasts predict timeframes of 210+ months to build and certify future-generation commercial aircraft. This trend is of particular concern to composite manufacturers and systems integrators. Secondly, consider the fragmentation of composites research. Since the time my supervisor was a PhD student, the rate of composites literature published on a monthly basis has increased over ten-fold. With a current back-log totalling 60 000+ papers and the addition of 250+ new papers per month, it comes as no surprise that it is no longer possible to keep up with all advances in the state-of-art!

The next step is Knowledge in Practice: Protect. Advance. Disrupt.

Given my prior industrial experience and my current status as a student, I now have the time and the freedom of thought to contemplate research that addresses composites manufacturing risk. The focus of my work is to establish a framework that fosters open, correct, usable and useful composites manufacturing knowledge. We call this framework Knowledge in Practice to continually remind ourselves that the goal is to explicitly manage the growing gap between academic research and industrial practice. Knowledge in Practice permits us to recognize and protect existing composites manufacturing design practices, to advance future better design practices that support and accelerate intelligent manufacturing decision making, and to create future best practices that disruptively solve production-scale problems using fundamental science. We consider such an approach to be an essential next step. Analogs do exist: in social sciences this is called knowledge mobilization and in medicine this is known as translational research.

Working together with my supervisor, peers and collaborators at the Composites Research Network, our vision is to engage in use-inspired research that sustains a resilient composites industry. This thinking and focus is far-reaching. While our niche is composites manufacturing, it is quite likely that the next-wave of advanced manufacturing technologies, such as 3D printing and nanomaterials, will suffer a similar fate should we choose to ignore such threats to manufacturing competitiveness.

Feature Image Credit (edited): Patrick Cardinal Photography (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)