Manitoba’s composites evolution
Published by CME Manitoba on June 19, 2017
By Sean McKay, President and CEO, Composites Innovation Centre
When we talk about composites, the first thing that comes to mind to most informed readers is fibreglass, which is commonly used in roof panels on transit buses, the doors of coaches and the hoods and fender panels on tractors, all of which are manufactured in Winnipeg. The more exotic carbon fibre reinforcements are primarily used in aerospace structures such as the main landing gear door and aft strut fairing for Boeing airplanes and the horizontal elevator for the F35 aircraft, also made in the city. Other composite applications include large corrosion tanks to retain chemicals and scrubbers to remove emissions for mining and potash operations, smaller holding tanks, hydro transformer pads and pultruded sections for window lineals. There are also the specialty areas such as sinks, shower stalls, bathtubs, gazebo roofs, planters, manhole covers, curling brooms and other types of commercial goods.
The fibreglass industry in Manitoba has grown organically based on local OEM requirements with designs evolving and materials and processes becoming more environmentally friendly. For example, 15 years ago if you walked into a fibreglass manufacturer, the aroma of styrene would quickly fill your nostrils and your leather jacket would need to be hung outside for several days afterwards. Today, to reduce these emissions and produce more consistent and higher quality parts, closed moulding processes are becoming the norm. There is, however, still some open moulding occurring and the gel coat spray operation is a necessity.
Leading the charge on advanced composites manufacturing is, as to be expected, the aerospace industry. In order to maintain and build its business, Boeing Winnipeg is continuously evolving. They are taking on design authority and producing large assemblies with added complexity, such as the engine intake’s inner barrel for the 737 MAX. Magellan has seen a significant increase in its capacity and capability driven by production of the F-35 horizontal elevator. This is partly because they are using carbon fibre reinforced materials with a resin system that can meet higher temperature environments than those generally used on commercial airplanes.
In all instances, there is a steady but slow move towards automation. Robotics have crept into trimming operations using water jet cutting for fibreglass parts and automated drilling and finishing assembly cells for the aerospace sector. With companies around the globe implementing Industry 4.0 type automated, computer controlled processes, it will not be long before our regional companies will be incorporating similar capabilities to survive. This will require a concentrated effort using public-private partnerships to support the necessary high investment.
Other advancements in composite materials and manufacturing are being driven by the green economy and the need to positively impact climate change. Specific to our region, there are resins being developed from Soy plants, natural fibre reinforcements are being produced from our agricultural crops, new vehicle developments are being conceptualized to significantly reduce weight and other new materials and processes are being adopted to minimize emissions.
All in all, the industry has a bright future, but we need to hold down the gas pedal to keep pace with and, in some instances, lead the charge for technology advancements if Manitoba businesses are to sustain and grow the composites industry in our region.
About the author
Sean McKay has held the position of President and CEO of the Composites Innovation Centre Manitoba Inc. since its inception in 2003. He has a wealth of knowledge and experience in developing and implementing composite materials related technologies for over 37 years in the industry.
The Composites Innovation Centre (CIC) specializes in the development and application of advanced composite technologies for the aerospace, ground vehicles, industrial and bioproducts sectors. The CIC’s capabilities are developed around core technologies to assist industry in keeping pace with competitors and to advance technologies to provide a competitive advantage.