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The building of a composites manufacturing niche

Equipped to meet vertical needs with rapid turnaround, Rock Hill, SC’s Composite Resources has found the sweet spot between prototypers and large composites manufacturers.

Southeastern industrial park resident

Composite Resources built its current facility in 2001, in one of Rock Hill, SC’s tree-lined industrial parks that reflect revitalization of the region.

Source | Composite Resources

Engineering collaboration

The six engineers at Composite Resources share an open office space with variable-height desks configured in pods. The goal of this arrangement is to facilitate active collaboration among the engineers.

Source | CW Photo | Karen Mason

Engaged workforce

Stations in Composite Resources’ climate-controlled hand layup area are staffed by workers of varying experience and skill levels. Jobs are carefully assigned to ensure a skill level commensurate with its demands, ranging from common industrial work to exacting aerospace projects.

Source | CW Photo | Karen Mason

 

Double duty

The main manufacturing floor at Composite Resources features several equipment pairs to ensure – as the company’s racing inspired philosophy might suggest – that they are ready for the start flag to commence any task or project.

 

Source | CW Photo | Karen Mason

Source | CW Photo | Karen Mason

Source | CW Photo | Karen Mason

Source | Composite Resources

Blue block in service

Prototyping and short-run components are often served cost-effectively with Huntsman Advanced Materials Renshape. Composite Resources machines this material for the full range of tooling applications – plugs, masters and molds.

Source | CW Photo | Karen Mason

From CAD to coating

Composite Resources has attracted some customers specifically because of the company’s vertical integration, starting with engineering and design and finishing with painting and coating operations – all in house.

 

Source | Composite Resources

 

 

Stock in trade

Along with new design-build projects, Composite Resources continues to service build-to-print work, such as roll-wrapping of tubes for aircraft seating applications. CR’s work with some customers dates back to the company’s founding.

 

Source | CW Photo | Karen Mason

Source | CW Photo | Karen Mason

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Travel through the Charlotte, NC, US, metropolitan area, where ASC Process Systems, Valencia, CA, US; and the other from American Autoclave Co., Jasper, GA, US), two Kolpak (Parsons, TN, US) freezers (a walk-in, 5 ft by 12 ft, and a drive-in, 25 ft by 25 ft), and two Global Finishing Solutions (Osseo, WI, US) Concept paint booths (one enclosed and one open-faced). Equipment for a mix of manufacturing processes — also often found in pairs — occupies the rest of the main floor. Though the company welcomes work for both pieces of equipment in each pair, Clauson explains that the idea is to ensure they make delivery dates. In fact, at the company-wide luncheons, the owners have admonished the team, “In the entire history of racing, a start flag has never been delayed because somebody wasn’t ready.” The paired equipment ensures readiness for each “race” the shop floor undertakes.

CR’s larger autoclave is 17 ft long — long enough to accommodate larger components. The company is considering additional autoclaves as part of its capital plan, anticipating ongoing autoclave work. “Even though there’s a lot of work being done with out-of-autoclave processes, there’s still a lot of autoclave work out there,” Clauson believes. “And because of qualified material systems, I think there will be for many years.”

Equipment on the main shop floor naturally is organized by process type. To our right past the autoclaves and freezers, several staff members are using the two Wabash (Wabash, IN, US) presses to compression-mold carbon fiber/epoxy brackets designed to hold video monitors on airplane seat backs. Clauson points out, “Presses are very robust pieces of equipment. As long as you clean up the control system, they continue to work well.” The press workload is nearly full, he reports, even though they came online a mere six months ago.

Beyond the presses, two McClean Anderson (Schofield, WI, US) WLH-1-2-4M filament winders are fabricating filter housings for ultra-clean water systems. CR winds the main section of these housings, then winds a flange area. The outside diameter and flange area are then machined to specification and coated.

To our left stand the two 5-axis machining centers, as well as several routers and turning centers, a gantry mill and a grinder. CR added its second Haas 5-axis machining center this year. The company machines its own products, completing post-cure trimming and drilling, for example, and also gets machining business from other companies. “Traditional metal machine shops are scared of machining composites,” Clauson has found. This reluctance creates additional opportunities for CR to fill its machining capacity, and the company is getting more and more inquiries about machining. A high-end machining center may be purchased in the near future.

The two C.R. Onsrud (Troutman, NC, US) machining centers feature a 5-by-10-ft bed, which enables CR to machine fairly good sized parts and tooling. The company uses an outside supplier for steel, Invar or other heavy metal tooling, but it creates all other tooling in house, including plugs, masters and molds, made from tooling materials ranging from lighter metals like aluminum to RenShape (Huntsman Advanced Materials, The Woodlands, TX, US) “blue blocks” and honeycomb core. “We do a lot of work with blue block tooling,” Clauson reports. “It’s inexpensive and really good for prototyping and short runs.” He notes that customers sometimes think they need metal tooling, but “if they only want five or 10 parts and they may change the design, blue block is faster and cheaper, and we can deliver parts pretty quickly.”

Near the machining centers, several aramid parts, designed to house electronics and serve as radomes on military vehicles, are queued for trimming. Nearby, a glass-enclosed office space houses computers used primarily for CNC coding. On a desktop in this area rests an interesting prototype that represents another burgeoning application area: a carbon fiber/epoxy leg for a drone. Composite Resources engineers designed this one-piece leg based on the drone maker’s initial design, which was comprised of 17 pieces. Part consolidation is often a more significant factor in drone applications than lightweighting, Clauson notes, as is the vibrational damping that composites offer.

Stock in trade

The two large workrooms that we enter next, located at the back of the U-shaped building’s near wing, are dedicated to processes that support steady production work the company performs for its customers. “We have a good mix of legacy versus new projects and equipment,” Brady notes. “Several clients have been around since Jon was in his garage.”

In the first room, two Gerber Technology (Tolland, CT, US) DCS 2500 ply cutters, 6 ft by 22 ft, are creating ply patterns from carbon fiber/epoxy prepreg. Between prepreg and the towpreg used on the filament winders, carbon fiber/epoxy materials make up about 75% of Composite Resources’ products. Off to one side of the cutters is a small product inventory area. On the day of our tour the shelves hold several lavatory sinks for commercial airliners, which CR manufactures from glass fiber/polyester, then gel coats the surface and post-forms the metal bowl in place. On the floor nearby sits a forming fixture for LEAP (CFM International, Cincinnati, OH, US) engine blades with a rather complex geometry. “The LEAP blades are really thick on one end and go down to a razor edge on the other,” Clauson explains, “so the fixture helps form the part’s preform before it is placed into an RTM mold.” CR manufactures the fixtures from scratch, including the aluminum master.

The second room is dedicated to roll-wrapping of tubes. Through its history, CR has manufactured more than 100,000 seat tubes for commercial aircraft seating. Equipment in this room includes two CDi (San Diego, CA, US) M880 FB roll wrappers with 10-ft platens, three CDi M700C tape wrappers with 12-ft tape carriage travel; a CDi M3300 Mandrel Extractor with 15-ft travel; and several Grieve Corp. (Round Lake, IL, US) and DK Ovens (Rialto, CA, US) programmable ovens with Watlow (St. Louis, MO, US) controllers.

From these rooms, we return past a conference room and back to the lobby, where our tour ends.

To the future and beyond

While strategic planning for the next several years for Composite Resources occupies most of his time, Brady also entertains more visionary aspirations when time permits. “Beyond five years, we expect commercial aerospace to be the bread and butter of our business,” he says. “But I’m really interested in the category of ‘future flight’ — the Uber flying taxi program, commercial and interplanetary space flight, for example. That word, ‘aerospace,’ is going to grow to encompass a much broader field going forward, and that’s what we’re really excited about.”

For today, though, Brady is happy to reap the fruits of CR’s thriving niche. He points out that the company’s experience seems to counter the prevailing view of the current market. “The narrative in a lot of aerospace today is cost pressures and squeezing of suppliers,” he says. “If you read a lot of the press, it doesn’t sound like a great place to be. But we’re a great success story.”

 

 

» Author: Karen Mason

» Publication Date: 26/11/2018

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This project has received funding from the European Union Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) under grant agreement n° [609149].

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