Composites Evolving with Technology

In Newport on the Isle of Wight (in the UK), workers labor to manufacture rotor blades for windmills using prepreg composite materials. That is soon to come to an end after their employer, Gurit, recently announced plans to move all its prepreg production to a sister facility in Spain. The move will affect some 70 of the plant’s 300 workers. At the root of the decision is technology.

Since first being introduced decades ago, composite materials have changed manufacturing in the modern era. But as advanced as composite materials are, they have by no means reached maturation. Composites continue to evolve in everything from the materials used to the construction and fabrication processes that make them useful in manufacturing. The same evolution that created the need for prepregs is also making the products obsolete for windmill rotor blades.

At Rock West Composites in Salt Lake City, they manufacture 20 different lines of prepregs for customers in multiple sectors. Their prepregs line is not as sensitive to the technology that is overtaking rotor blade production because the customers who buy their prepregs are using different fabrication processes. This is important to understanding that prepregs are not going away. They are just not necessarily being used for the same things these days.

Rotor Blades and Infusion Technology

So if prepregs aren’t going away, why is Gurit consolidating rotor blade production from the UK and Spain into a single plant? Over the last several years, the windmill industry has been turning to infusion technology to create rotor blades. Where prepregs are mainly used in open mold applications, infusion is better for closed mold fabricating. Simply put, the closed mold model is better for rotor blades.

Infusion is by no means a new process. It has been around for decades. But until recently it was not widely used for sensitive closed mold applications. Now that technology has made infusion more consistent and better able to adapt to new composite materials, it is proving to be a better way to produce rotor blades, boat decks, and other large finished products requiring higher density and more strength.

Infusion also works faster for closed mold applications. As such, it is more practical than prepregs for things like rotor blades. So much so that all Gurit prepreg production for rotor blades will be consolidated in Spain. Their two prepregs plants in Germany and Switzerland will now concentrate fully on aerospace production.

Evolution a Good Thing

Once Gurit implements its plans in the Isle of Wight, roughly six-dozen people will be without work. Though the evolution that brought about Gurit’s consolidation may not seem like a good thing to those workers, it is a good thing for the composites industry and the customers who purchase finished products.

The evolution of composites is bringing about better, stronger, and cheaper products that are truly revolutionizing manufacturing. Because of this evolution, we are able to build larger airplanes, stronger boats, and more robust military vehicles. We can improve everything from pro sports to leisure activities.

Prepregs continue to be a valuable resource to fabricators who need more consistent materials for highly sensitive projects. Rock West Composites will continue manufacturing and selling prepregs to fabricators in multiple industries. Even though that will not include rotator blade manufacturers, it doesn’t mean prepregs are dead. They’re anything but.

As for infusion, improved technologies are making it a better process for closed mold applications. The result will be better and less expensive rotator blades, better boat decks, etc. Ultimately, the evolution of both processes will lead to more jobs as demand for finished products grows.