Fibre-reinforced thermoplastic for the new generation of electric cars
The project at a glance
- Control system for a UD thermoplastic line.
- Fibre-reinforced thermoplastic is an innovative material for the automotive and aviation industries.
- Clever engineering to overcome supply issues.
- Engineering and components in line with American standards.
Eltra thrives on cutting-edge technology. Recently, our team realised the control system for a unidirectional (UD) thermoplastic line for a valued client. This line produces a lightweight material that is set to revolutionize the automotive and aviation industries. Service & Inspection Engineer Jasper Diepstraten talks about the project and what drives him in his work.
“Iets wat niet werkt, moet het gewoon doen.”
Can you give a brief introduction to this project? What exactly does this machine produce?
“We are building the control system for a machine that produces fibre-reinforced technical plastics. The machine takes glass or carbon fibre and impregnates it with a plastic emulsion, known as a thermoplastic. By stacking multiple layers crosswise in the next stage of the process, a structurally strong material is created. It can serve as a replacement for metal. It is equally strong, but much lighter. This makes this thermoplastic material ideal for use in airplanes or electric cars, where every gram counts. The technology is still in its infancy. Virtually every car and aircraft manufacturer in the world is testing this material, but it has not yet been widely adopted. However, you can expect to see it everywhere in a few years.”
What are the challenges of working with such a new technology?
“As the applications of this technology are still being explored, we often find ourselves pushing the boundaries of what is possible. The customer’s first question is often, ‘Can it go any faster?’ There is usually more to it than meets the eye. A small change often has significant repercussions throughout the rest of the system. We often joke: ‘Just saying it, it doesn’t sound too hard.’ But we always find a solution. When we started, the machines were running at six meters per minute, but now we’ve pushed it up to fifteen. And hopefully, soon we’ll reach twenty meters per minute.”
Did you have any experience with thermoplastic lines that you could build upon?
“We’ve built control systems for similar machines, but we had to go back to the drawing board for this one. During the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a shortage of chips, which affected the availability of servo drives. The drives we previously used were not available, so we had to switch to a different type. There was also a shortage of that type, but we were able to get one unit while we waited for the rest. This allowed us to convert and test the control system in parts. So, we were already 90% done with the conversion by the time the machine was actually being built.”
This machine is heading to the United States. What are the differences compared to a European model?
“In America, different standards are used compared to Europe. That means, for example, that you must use different wire colours, and that some parts must meet different certification standards. We also faced supply issues with these different components. Components for the American market naturally have less priority here than their European counterparts. This occasionally led to a hunt for suitable parts. Especially since changing one component often meant a different connection, causing another part to no longer fit. It was quite a task, but I’m very happy with the machine we have managed to build.”
What makes working on a project like this enjoyable?
“I love troubleshooting. That’s a trait I’ve always had, even in my previous job as an electronics repairer. Things that are broken, must be fixed. Figuring out that puzzle is fun, and the satisfaction when you’ve solved it is great. There’s also something magical about starting with nothing but ending up with a fully operational machine. That’s amazing.”