Fraunhofer partnership finalized

The ability to be on the cutting edge of developing lightweight vehicles that are not soft on safety, longevity or durability is at The University of Western Ontario’s doorstep.

Following a much anticipated announcement, the ink has finally dried on the Fraunhofer Project Centre for Composites Research @ Western (FPC) – the world’s latest state-of-the-art equipped press centre in full industrial scale – to be established at the Advanced Manufacturing Park.

The Fraunhofer Institute for Chemical Technology ICT, Europe’s largest application-oriented research organization, and Western will work together on processing and developing composite materials for lightweight vehicles in the joint facility.

“I was asked many times, ‘Why Western?’ because Western doesn’t have a comprehensive expertise in composites,” says Frank Henning, director, FPC. “And I said, ‘Well, but they have a comprehensive expertise in materials and surfaces.’ We have our expertise in composites, so I don’t want to duplicate. I want to add competences. We feel Western was ideal, not only having the experts that we were looking for where we have a gap to bridge, but they have a strategy that 100 per cent fits into ours with their new Advanced Manufacturing Park.”

Germany, and particularly Fraunhofer ICT, has become a world leader in lightweight construction. Fibre composites are finding increasing application, particularly in the automotive sector. They offer not only a low density, but also the possibility of integrated functions.

The plan is to have the facility fully operational by July or August 2012, which includes completed construction and installation of equipment. The estimated cost of the facility, including the equipment, is more than $10 million.

“There is already one year of intensive work that has been done on the architecture and the equipment. Now it is a matter of translating it into action and to really build the facility,” Henning says. “With all the preparation that has been done in the last year, I am quite confident (the timeline) is tight, but realistic.”

Even before the shovels hit the ground for the FPC, Fraunhofer Institute for Chemical Technology ICT has established collaborations with automotive giants Ford Motor Company and General Motors, as well as manufacturers in resin and glass fibre industries, among others.

Some of the applications of the composites material include automotive under body shields, parts of the body structures of a car, closures such as tailgates and doors and seat structures. There are also applications for the solar and wind turbine industries.

“We are developing these parts, real one-to-on in size, on this equipment in the FPC, where a customer can make tests in this facility with the university on the product level, not on the sample level,” Henning explains.

“Especially in the western countries where we face the challenge of rapid innovation versus the emerging countries. To keep leadership in many of those fields we have to join forces to accelerate innovations and take advantage of the contributions of each country and regions, especially with driving forces in the field of automotive.”

The main focus of research at the FPC will be fibre composites for lightweight construction in various markets. The facility will be equipped with a state-of-the-art hydraulic press with a maximum clamping force of 2,500 tons suitable for research on parts in full industrial scale.

“What that project centre will allow us to do is full-scale testing of new lightweight materials using the expertise of Fraunhofer has developed over the years and work with Canadian and North American industries to help develop new processes and materials,” says Andy Hrymak, dean of Western’s Faculty of Engineering.

The partnership will help fast track the applied end of engineering research, he says. FPC will allow researchers to scale up their work from sample models to prototypes. It may also result in more scientific questions for faculty members to explore.

“Especially in applications where safety and reproducibility of manufacturing is important, you can only do so much testing at the lab-bench scale,” he says. “At some point people want to have confidence when they’ve got a full-scale part that it meets all the requirements in terms of safety, durability and dimensions. But also, that it’s not that you can make one part or 10 parts, it’s that you can make 1,000 parts and get the properties that you want.”

Material and process research will be carried out in the technologies of Direct – Sheet Moulding Compound, Long Fiber Reinforced Thermoplastics and High Pressure Resin Transfer Moulding. It will examine a sustainable use of the lightweight potential of these high volume composite technologies in the fields automotive industry, machines and equipment industry and aviation industry.

The FPC is not tied to a particular company partner, but is open to working with multiple partners with an interest in developing a new product or materials system, Hrymak notes.

The service portfolio of the FPC contains:
•    Research in the fields materials, simulation, design;
•    Optimizing of existing processes and materials;
•    Development of new processes and materials as well as transition of lab scale basic research results into industrial applications;
•    Part, process, material and tooling innovations; and
•    Competence along the whole value chain from product engineering up to manufacturing of demonstrator parts.

The total complement of members Fraunhofer Institute for Chemical Technology ICT transferring to London to work at the institute is six, two of which join in November.

Western will contribute its scientific excellence in the field of surface technologies and material sciences. The clear strategic orientation of the university toward modern manufacturing systems is also a key aspect within the cooperation. An additional factor is that London is located at the heart of the Canadian automobile industry, and only a short distance away from the major North American automotive construction centres in Detroit.

“Our ability to attract one of the world’s top research and development organizations to London is testament to both Western’s longstanding strengths in materials and biomaterials research and to the city’s forward-thinking vision,” says Ted Hewitt, Western’s vice-president (research and international relations). “This unique project will make London the leading site for advanced composite materials research and testing at the manufacturing scale in North America, and promises to create jobs throughout the region.”

The City of London’s significant financial support to the university for this co-operation was instrumental in allowing the FPC to proceed. The joint project centre will run for an initial period of five years.

“The City of London understands the benefit of investing in solid and inventive partnerships,” London Mayor Joe Fontana says. “This is one of those collaborations and it is poised to deliver remarkable advancements in composite technology, and distribute materials to an expanded marketplace.”