Risk and Reliability
Two words: Advanced composites.
Advanced composite materials have broad possibilities in American manufacturing because of their elastic properties and ability to be very stiff while also remaining lightweight. They often outperform metals in terms of weight and strength. The high cost of these materials, however, currently limits their use to specialized, low-volume applications, such as aircraft parts.
A cutting-edge Vanderbilt engineering lab that studies how materials, structures and machines operate under real-world conditions is playing a key part in the $259 million Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation, made up of a 122-member consortium of partner states, universities, national laboratories and industry leaders.
IACMI is the newest federally funded hub for manufacturing innovation. Announced by President Barack Obama in January 2015, its focus is on accelerating the prototyping and scale-up of carbon fiber composites used in clean energy manufacturing of automobiles, wind turbines and compressed gas storage tanks. One of the key objectives of the plan is supporting American manufacturing and raising the profile of industries in the U.S. as production processes change.
Much of Vanderbilt’s work will take place at the Laboratory for Systems Integrity and Reliability as faculty, undergraduates and graduate students conduct research for IACMI’s Composite Materials and Process Technology focus area. Doug Adams, Daniel F. Flowers Professor and chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, leads Vanderbilt’s efforts.
Advanced composite materials must be high quality when they are made and then maintain their performance as they are used. In addition to being very expensive, current advanced composites must undergo years of testing, making them inaccessible to high-production industries.
LASIR founder and co-director Adams says Vanderbilt is developing the measurement tools that will give intelligence to the machines that make these materials. That will enable workers to quickly diagnose and correct material quality on the fly. The rapid evaluation and correction will help bring the cost of high-performance composite materials within reach of a much wider range of industries.
In terms of economic impact, IACMI’s analysis shows that the market for composite materials will nearly double globally by 2020. Making sure that workers, employers and suppliers in the U.S. are able to stay ahead of the curve on the process is seen as crucial by industrial, academic and political leaders across the spectrum.
Adams says it’s exciting that Vanderbilt is a partner in the game-changing initiative to realize the Department of Energy’s vision for advanced composites technology and a highly trained and skilled workforce. “Vanderbilt research will help shape the future of American manufacturing,” he says.
The IACMI is supported by the U.S. Department of Energy and comprises a consortium of over 120 companies, nonprofits, and universities.
Top Photo: Wind turbine blades made with lighter weight materials will translate into more electricity production and lower costs of renewable energy. Doug Adams (above left) seeks to develop technologies that sense flaws in composite materials used for the blades and in vehicles. Right: This electrohydraulic vehicle simulator testbed puts the durability of lightweight composites to the test.