Composite materials are unleashing a wave of innovation across a plethora of industries, and Australian manufacturers are seizing the opportunity. By Kerryn Caulfield, Executive Officer at Composites Australia.

Australian Federal Governments past and present, as well as state governments in Victoria and Queensland, have one thing in common in terms of economic policy – they see composite materials as a key enabler for the product innovation required for Australia’s advanced manufacturing sector to be competitive and secure new export markets.

While composite materials are generally more expensive that traditional metals, timber and concrete, they offer distinct advantages that can make products competitive locally and globally. Composite materials give designers and engineers freedom to be creative; to think outside the square and design fluid, seamless shapes; integrate fittings; reduced weight; improve comfort and usability, leverage the high strength to weight ratio; heat and sound insulation qualities; anti-corrosion and low conductivity characteristics.

Rarely a month goes by without news of the release of a new product featuring carbon fibre. That’s because today’s marketers recognise carbon fibre products are highly desirable, their association with high-performance, elite sports giving their brand an edge in the marketplace.

Two Victorian advanced manufacturers are enjoying export growth on the back of their carbon fibre products. Geelong-based Carbon Revolution is delivering on a contract to supply its world-leading carbon fibre wheels on every Ford Shelby GT350R Mustang made in the USA. Quickstep, an Australian aerospace manufacturer is diversifying into the automotive market starting with a contract to produce innovative carbon fibre air intake system for the Ford Falcon XR6 Sprint.

Composite manufacturers in Australia are increasingly being called on by their clients to help them introduce carbon fibre features into their buses, trains, truck sleep cabins, bicycles, motorbikes, furniture and sporting equipment.

Enlightened Boats in Queensland has discovered a niche market for their lightweight composite fishing dinghies among “grey nomads” as well as keen fishermen who are attracted by the light weight, comfort, look and quiet when compared with the cheaper traditional “tinny”.

Similarly architects and sculptors in Australia and overseas are realising the cultural and commercial benefits composites can provide their clients and the surrounding streetscape. Today high-rise apartment buildings made principally of composite materials can be prefabricated in a factory, and installed as complete individual units saving time and money on the build while limiting the time trades and equipment are working at heights.

The opportunity to prefabricate a strong, yet light structures in composites and transport and install with minimal onsite works and minimal disruption to the environment, traffic and neighbourhood is making composites the preferred solution for small bridges, wharves, marinas as well as major infrastructure refurbishment and strengthening projects.

Composite materials played a key role in the widening and strengthening of the Westgate Bridge – the world’s biggest project of structural strengthening by means of bonded, high-tensile carbon fibre reinforced polymers (CFRP) – a system developed by Swinburne and Monash University research engineers.

Victoria’s Yarra Valley Water is confident the GRP pipe system currently being laid for the $130m Amaroo Main Sewer in Melbourne northern growth corridor has the strength and durability to outlast its 100-year design. The 1.6m pipes are manufactured under license at RPC Technology’s Adelaide plant while the other GRP components are manufactured at their Corio plant near Geelong. The pipes are engineered and designed to create a seamless join as they are jacked under pressure along the tunnel some 14-20m below ground.

The pipe system is being used in an increasing number of water and sewer main projects in regional and urban Australia. It is an excellent example of how composites can be cleverly engineered to provide a highly competitive solution to repair aging infrastructure and construct new infrastructure.

Recognising the opportunity to provide a solution for the chemical transport industry, Sydney-based Evolution Tankers invested in R&D to develop its patented Omni Tanks, carbon fibre chemical transport tankers seamlessly lined with polyethylene thermoplastic The award winning innovation is now going global in a market attracted by the commercial benefits presented by the lightweight tanks, enabling larger payloads, corrosion resistance and easy washout, leading in turn to higher returns for chemical transport companies.

The next-generation Australian defence land transport vehicle, the Hawkei, is about to go into production featuring several advanced composite components that help the vehicle achieve the weight and strength parameters required for helicopter deployment and the protection of our troops.

The sky’s the limit

The above examples clearly demonstrate the diversity of applications possible with composite materials and it is by no means complete. Composite materials are no longer the materials of the future. They are materials of the 21st century.

As futurist Geoff Manaugh of BLDG BLOG argues in a recent article for New Scientist’s New Urbanist column, skyscrapers of the future will be glued together.

“In fact, composite materials are more like rigid fabrics,” says Manaugh. “Sticking them together results in building-sized components that can sometimes be set hard in just a few seconds, depending on the adhesives used. Composite materials are already used to make high-performance yachts, wind turbine blades, large passenger aircraft such as Boeing’s carbon fibre Dreamliner, and even commercial spacecraft such as SpaceShipOne. Why not skyscrapers?”

Composites can and should be tailored to an application to achieve optimum results. This can mean it is far from straightforward to design and manufacture. However there is now a mass of global research to provide engineers and architects with the necessary knowledge to move beyond their classical training based on traditional materials, plus there is now ready access to composite engineering design, testing and analysis expertise in Australia to support manufacturers in the take-up of composite components.

Unlike most traditional manufacturers, composite fabricators have a diverse product range and can apply the same technologies, skills and processes to a myriad of end-uses. For example, Melbourne boat builder Composite Constructions is manufacturing helicopter search-lights for a client growing their global market with a lightweight, well-designed and engineered composite casing with integrated mountings. Queensland high-performance boat-builders Mouldcam is building a global reputation in manufacturing architectural composite features and large-scale innovative public sculptures.

Queensland-based composite manufacturer Marky Industries supplies components for major truck companies; elevated work platforms helping  clients innovate by leveraging the characteristics of composite materials to build their market share.

In Tasmania, Penguin Composites, founded on kayaks, now also manufactures a range of caravans along with igloo accommodation for remote scientific and research operations. It also undertakes commissioned projects for clients including bespoke seating for the Mona Gallery wharf; “igloo” offices for Google’s Geneva branch; roofing for a heritage building; and more.

Meanwhile the world’s largest car manufacturers, defence organisations and aerospace giants such as Boeing and Airbus are all investing heavily in R&D to maximise the advantages of composite materials in order to remain competitive.

Clearly, composite materials area key enabler for innovation and competitiveness in the global market. Advanced manufacturers looking for a step-change to break into new markets, might consider whether there is an opportunity to partner with a composite fabricator to develop a creative solution.

Kerryn Caulfield is the Executive Officer at Composites Australia.