Back in the day, only a very few players in the automotive field were able to use composites as part of their mass manufacturing process. These materials, being so expensive and different from ‘traditional ones’ in terms of management, were mainly used by other industries such as aerospace, maritime and the alike. The only cars to enjoy them were lightweight vehicles designed for the racetrack (which included other advantages linked to composites).
Today, although the raw materials used to form composites are still far from being cheap, we are witnessing a clear transformation, as more and more mass-production car programs incorporate composites parts.
In fact, research shows that the global automotive composites market reached $7.2 billion last year, with demand further increasing at a steady CAGR of roughly 5.4 percent, between 2018 and 2028, mainly due to fuel efficiency demands. This impressive volume and pace leave very little room for doubt: automotive composite-based manufacturing is now a growing trend.
A mixture of advantages
Here are a few of the main reasons for this exciting change:
- Lightweighting: This is not just an advantage of composites, but also the main mission of automotive manufacturers today. A study conducted by DuPont Automotive has found that manufacturers currently rank lightweighting as their top priority and challenge. This important task sends manufacturers searching for new materials and blends to use.
- Durability: Composites enable manufacturers to control very specific qualities of the materials they use, and not surprisingly, many manufacturers choose to create cars that are more stable and durable in nature, with the ability to absorb significant energy and endure different weather conditions. The right composites are resistant to high temperature and moisture, protect the car from short term corrosion, and retain their shape and look for a prolonged period of time.
- Flexibility: There are a few challenges when working with composites, which we’ll discuss shortly, but what makes these materials great is their flexibility and ability to be easily molded into complex and elaborate shapes. For some automotive manufacturers, this quality makes all the difference, turning complicated designs into a piece of cake.
This article, however, is not about the advantages of composites.
While the above advantages make a strong case for using composites, adopting them as part of mass production in the automotive industry is wholly different than just adding other, more expensive materials to the production line. The real challenge goes beyond that.
Composites manufacturing processes in the automotive industry
Composite- based manufacturing processes are vastly different and call for new tools, technologies , and techniques. It therefore brings a challenge that is far bigger than “just” the high price of these materials.
There’s a long list of parameters that manufacturers have to carefully track and monitor in this case, including temperature, humidity, expiration dates, and more. When composites manufacturing starts, each step of the production goes through a series of changes and the production floor must follow suit, and fast. Manufacturers therefore seek professional help in meeting these new standards.
As part of this new state of mind, manufacturers encounter a list of related optimization challenges:
- Automated large-scale production: The use of composites in automotive manufacturing may be on the rise, but it still has some great potential to live up to. This means that mass production manufacturing with composites is not yet fully automated, and the current workflow includes many tasks that are still performed manually. While that’s somehow acceptable when working with simple low-cost materials, with composites there’s no room for material waste, nor for manual mistakes. Creating a smart, automated process in one of the first and main challenges that automotive manufacturers face when onboarding composites.
- Quality control: Many different factors to monitor are added. Manufacturers need to stay up to date on every little thing concerning how they handle these complex materials, such as resins, plies, tools, and more. Material-related quality factors must be tracked in real-time, from raw-material to finished part.
- Supply chain collaboration: New materials add many more 3rd party vendors to the production process, some of which are related to the supply chain and others that are not, such as engineers, programmers, managers, and others. The challenge of communication between all parties now includes material data.
- Product simulations: Again, it’s difficult to create a detailed simulation without enough information and experience working with each material and fiber mix. Considering the price of these materials, manufacturers must ensure an accurate simulation where they can examine their decisions before putting them to actual work.
The role of industry 4.0
To understand how industry 4.0 tools can assist with the great task of composites-based automotive manufacturing, here’s a brief overview of how the above challenges can be solved using these advanced technologies:
- Cutting optimization
We’ve mentioned the fact that composites are expensive materials a few times before, so the issue of optimizing the way they are handled is particularly crucial. AI-based cutting can minimize the amount of wasted materials in terms of material utilization, usage of remnants, expiration dates, future orders and more. Minimizing human errors also means that many quality control issues involving materials are prevented, thereby saving time and money. By building a smarter process, we can make the most out of these pricey materials and contribute to a positive ROI.
- Quality control and root cause analysis
Not only material-focused mistakes are prevented thanks to industry 4.0 technologies -any other type of action can be optimized to eliminate errors. We’ve mentioned that one of the biggest challenges of composite manufacturing is juggling many different elements all at once, which means we need a solution to minimize damages by quickly tracking the source of the problem as it happens. An AI-based solution that runs in real time can identify changes in manufacturing patterns, then find and solve the problematic factor immediately.
- Communication issues
In addition to handling many different elements, industry 4.0 solutions can improve the communication between all parties involved in the manufacturing process. This way, workflow updates are sent to every relevant worker along the chain and parts and materials are never misplaced. By tracking the work and tools of each person or machine involved, we enable smooth communication that prevents costly mistakes and frustration.
If you want to learn more, we’ve written this article that examines specific use cases for optimization that are possible only by onboarding AI based IIoT manufacturing optimization solution.
Putting composites optimization to good use
Even though the industry needs more practice in using composites for automotive mass production the smart way, there are some valid use cases we can all learn from. Here are a couple of strong examples:
- The Renault F1 Team, which is responsible for the team’s Formula1 race cars, faced a series of challenges which proved that the real race takes place away from the track. The team needed a technological solution that could handle the intense speed in which they work and change designs and technologies accordingly. In addition, the materials used to build race cars have to be extremely lightweight and handle extreme conditions, which leads to a shorter lifespan than usual.
By implementing Plataine’s IIoT AI-based solution, the Renault F1 Team was able to overcome these obstacles. A network of sensors provided the team with full real-time visibility, the data collected, together with Plataine’s AI engines, enabled sophisticated monitoring, automation procedures and actionable insights that were adjusted quickly and seamlessly whenever the team tried new designs or innovations for its composites manufacturing.
- Cobra International, a leading composites manufacturer, implemented Plataine’s AI-based technologies to digitize and optimize its manufacturing processes. The company was looking to boost its efficiency levels, eliminate redundant manual tasks, decrease human and machine errors, and more. Digital manufacturing solutions enable Cobra to increase efficiency driving more output while reducing material waste allowing Cobra to meet with the increasing demand of their automotive customers for high quality carbon fiber parts.
Most industries could use an automation boost, preferably AI-based, but with the rising number of new cars built with the use of composites hitting the road each year and the challenges involved, the automotive field needs dedicated industry 4.0 technologies even more.