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The Tennessee Manufacturing Extension Partnership (TMEP) Program, a part of the NIST MEP National Network, is one of 10 MEP Centers working directly with Manufacturing USA Institutes to help connect small and medium-sized manufacturers to the advanced technologies, materials and processes that are the focus areas of the 14 Manufacturing USA Institutes. TMEP has two full-time staff members embedded with the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation (IACMI) in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Danny Norman, the TMEP advanced composites technical specialist, works directly with IACMI staff to translate the work of IACMI and assist MEP Centers in connecting manufacturers to advanced composites technologies. Norman recently attended NPE 2018: The Plastics Show and brought back this report on developments in automotive lightweighting.
3M announced availability of an exciting new composites technology this week at NPE, the Plastics Show. “The secret lies in the inherent strength of a sphere, which can withstand large loads under both compression and tension yet is light thanks to its hollow construction. The process is like making foam by injecting air bubbles into a material, but without any loss of strength or rigidity of the finished product.”2 In addition to lightweighting benefits, the fiber bubbles can reduce cycle times by reducing resin content.3
“Another critical advantage is the ability to actually enhance the process by improving resin flow,” said Mike Siwajek of Continental Structural Plastics. “The flow advantage is particularly notable with regard to the shelf life of SMC raw material. Even after a period of months in inventory, resin formulated with the new smaller bubbles continues to flow well and fill out molds dependably. We can achieve a weight reduction of approximately 25 percent for a given part with 3M iM30K glass bubbles compared to calcium carbonate.” 4
Impacts: Chevrolet has already confirmed the material saved 10 pounds on the current Corvette. The tiny beads are not a substitute for the high-strength carbon and glass fibers used in some composite materials, but can be used in combination with fiber reinforcement. 5 The main advantage of the microspheres is in replacing ingredients in composites that do not impart strength such as excessive amounts of bonding resin.
Application: The fibers can be applied to a number of resin and reinforced formats such as sheet molded compound which gives it a wide variety of application opportunities. The additive has a high potential application in the boating industry as well. It’s glass bubbles proved performance as early as 2015 in Chevrolet Corvettes and other variants have been around even longer than that so the technology enough support and history behind it to make it an attractive opportunity for a wide range of companies.
For more information about how advanced composites can increase competitiveness or to learn more about how MEP can connect you to advanced manufacturing technologies and solutions, please contact your TMEP Solutions Consultant or James Ruble, TMEP-IACMI Outreach Consultant.