Endless winding equipment to produce fibre reinforced tubes
By developing an innovative, more efficient way to develop fibre composite made thermoplastic polymers, an EU-funded project not only created jobs and new business opportunities, it helped position Germany’s Rheinland-Pfalz region as a European technology hub.
" Not only did our research produce a basic design for a multi-head ring-winder, our testing clearly showed the technical and economic feasibility of the process. "
Despite the many advantages of fibre composite made thermoplastic polymers, their use remains limited. To increase their market share, AFPT GmbH designed a more efficient, continuous production process for developing these plastic tubes.
The pros and cons of thermoplastic composites
The use of thermoplastic composites has increased rapidly over the last few years, and there’s no sign of this trend slowing down. Compared to conventional metallic materials, fibre composite materials offer the user several distinct advantages. As a result, today nearly all industrial sectors use fibre composites, and they remain the material of choice for the avionics and automotive sectors who rely on their low weight and high level of stiffness.
One type of composite of particular interest is the use of composite made thermoplastic polymers, which have significant advantages over the use of traditional thermoset polymers. For example, these products come ready to use, curing isn’t required and mandrels can be immediately re-used. Furthermore, production is clean and environmentally friendly, and the products can be easily recycled at the end of their lifecycle.
Despite these advantages, the use of fibre composite made thermoplastic polymers remains limited due to the complexity of producing them. If production processes were developed to allow for an output of 150 mm per second — necessary for the production of composite-made transverse beams and articulated shafts — the use of composite materials in manufacturing would increase substantially. Such increased use would have secondary benefits to society, as composite materials are more energy efficient than conventional systems, which use infrared heating.
A new process
The aim of this project was to develop a process to reinforce plastic tubes for construction and transportation with one or more layers of fibre reinforced thermoplastic materials in a continuous production process. The project builds from the laser-assisted technology originally developed by AFPT — the sole and lead project partner — which is used for the processing of thermoplastic components.
To accomplish this, the project started by designing various solutions based on a list of technical and economic requirements. This resulted in a range of designs for the discontinuous, semi-continuous and fully continuous production of reinforced plastic tubes. The team then selected three concepts for continuous production for further elaboration and validation.
Next, engineers built a tape head ready for mounting in a multi-head ring winder, including all necessary sub-systems required for tape-guidance and heating. As this process was built, pre-testing was ongoing and adjustments made as needed. Although at the start of the project it was the project’s intention to erect a full-scale test-facility, due to cost restrictions researchers instead developed a test bench to use for the validation of all developed processes and technical solutions.
With the help of this test bench, real scale production tests were carried out. With these results, researchers could prove that continuous reinforcement of tubes is technically possible and, perhaps more importantly, economically viable.
More jobs, more opportunities
Now, with the new production process fully in place, 50% of APFT’s annual turnover comes from continuous reinforced tubes. Since 2012, AFPT has expanded its workforce to more than 20 employees, from which over 50% are high-skilled engineers. All of this is has directly benefited the Rheinland-Pfalz region, positioning it as an emerging tech hub. Furthermore, the actual ring-winder projects have created direct turnover at AFPT’s high-tech suppliers for lasers, actuators and housing, not only in Germany, but all over Europe.
Total investment and EU funding
Total investment for the project “Endlosrohrwickelanlage Zur Herstellung Von Thermoplastischen Verbundrohren” is EUR 784 600, with the EU’s European Regional Development Fund contributing EUR 392 300 through the Rhineland-Palatinate Operational Programme for the 2007-2013 programming period.