An introduction to Composite Structures, with Elston Engineering Services

Product: NX
Industry: Marina

We live in a world where nothing stands still. Companies and individuals across the world continue to push the boundaries of composite structures. After all, it was an engineer, not a scientist, that first set foot on another world. Elston Engineering Services (or EES) are most certainly classed in that bracket of innovators. Based in Knebworth in the UK, EES operate in the world of mechanical engineering services. The company specializing in the development of fibre reinforced plastic composite structures. Ron Elston, Managing director, proudly owns the company. Ron has a wealth of experience spanning over an illustrious 60-year career. His career began as an apprentice draftsman at ML aviation, before eventually overseeing the creation of small integrated circuits and large earth station antennas. Rons’ varied experience means he is considered a specialist within mechanical engineering and composite manufacturing.

To provide context, composites are a combination of non-metallic and metallic materials to create a structure, or range of structures. These structures create strong, lightweight, stiff and low-density components. These components lay the groundwork to create incredibly strong assemblies across a wide range of sectors, including architecture, automotive and aerospace to name a few. It’s an approach which has accelerated the capabilities of society to take our engineering capabilities to the next level.

21st century advanced manufacturing and composite applications; how did we get here?

There was a time when composite manufacturing applications were unable to meet the needs of many companies. Companies had a broad understanding of how new processes and materials would revolutionize the manufacturing workflow to include composites. The problem was, companies weren’t pro-active enough in order to facilitate change.

Ron had an opportunity to merge the testing and analysis of composite structures with the design office during his time at the Marconi Research Centre. Why was this so important at the time? It enabled a specialist like Ron to implement an integrated approach; whereby one team oversaw conceptual design, geometric design, structural analysis, tool creation, part creation and testing. By connecting the dots, composite manufacturing companies were able to achieve greater product innovation to improve production efficiencies. In addition, companies reduced the time to the final iteration, whilst simultaneously pushing the capabilities of their respective industries forward.

Technology was a gamechanger for composite structures

Ron’s experience contributed to a change to processes which resulted in improvements within advanced manufacturing. However, it was the improvements in technology that really pushed the industry into a new era. Modern day capabilities means graphical analysis is completed at a much faster pace. In addition, multiple composite materials can be handled simultaneously; mainly due to improvements we have seen in computer hardware performance and storage.

Shock and vibration studies are now more accurate than they’ve ever been; when you combine all these elements, the user is receiving far more real-world data than previously. Teams who have the experience and/or a knowledgeable will really pay dividends. Composite manufacturers are able to reduce mass, cost and production times for their structures. As a result, the same manufacturers are ultimately reducing their lead time to market.

Sustainability in composite manufacturing

Processes and technological innovations have continuously pushed industry standards to where we are today within composite manufacturing. However, a global transition towards a more sustainable society is needed; composite manufacturing is not immune to this.
Thankfully, composite manufacturing companies are already considering the practicalities of implementing sustainable technologies into their workflow. Companies are beginning to reclaim carbon fibre from decommissioned, out-of-use products in some instances. In addition, there’s been a switch towards the use of thermoplastics as opposed to thermo-setting plastics. Thermosetting plastics for composites typically incorporate one use epoxy resin, Thermoplastics such as polyethylene don’t have this problem; their chemical structure means that they can be re-melted and taken back out of composite structures for re-use. It’s essentially an early stage of a ‘circular economy’ within the composite manufacturing industry.

Fibre-reinforced plastics can produce structures with strength to weight ratios greater than traditional materials, such as steel and aluminium. Reinforcing the thermoplastics using either re-used carbon fibre or ‘virgin’ fibre can achieve strength and stiffness properties approaching those achieved with thermosetting composites. We are seeing continuous improvement of raw materials to create strong products, whilst not compromising on quality and reducing carbon emissions in parallel. This is truly the start of composite manufacturers recognizing the dangers posed by carbon emissions moving towards a more sustainable model for the future.

Why Siemens for composite structures?

For someone with Rons’ experience, using a powerful software application is just as important as having a strong understanding of the science behind composite structures. 50 years in the industry means Ron has seen, used and mastered a range of software applications. It is therefore testament to Siemens that NX continues to be the package of choice for Elston Engineering Services. Why is this the case?

The integrated approach of Siemens NX

Ron believes that Siemens has an integrated approach with NX; different features with different purposes are packaged into the same application to enable users to stay on one platform for their whole workflow. Design engineers can lose precious time during their workflow exporting datasets to another application, if their primary application doesn’t come equipped with the correct features they need for their use case. Siemens NX eliminates this problem. Factoring in a consistent development strategy which add a range of features into future NX releases lays the groundwork for NX to meet the needs of multiple companies across a range of industries.

Understanding the science behind composite structures

The user may have a strong understanding of the science behind composite structures. They then need to have the tools available to accurately simulate the science within their application. It’s an important aspect to any application when analyzing how a range of composite structures will behave in real-world scenarios. This is especially true when the scenario becomes extreme and place enormous external pressures on the structures! NX accurately analyzes composite and metallics structures in accordance with real-world scenarios. It’s a feature that came into its own when Ron developed radar antennas with EASAT for use in intense weather zones.