Efficiencies in Composites Manufacturing Result in Better Working Conditions

Composites manufacturing demonstration

The composites industry has evolved in its manufacturing processes and techniques to create composites parts more efficiently while offering higher performance in their end-use industry applications. A major ancillary benefit of composites processing innovation is the improvement in factory working conditions. Closed mold processing and custom kitting solutions are two primary examples of production efficiencies that actively improve the manufacturing environment for workers.

Closed mold processing enhances employee health and safety

“A clean and organized shop leads to production efficiency,” according to Jeff Reber, Technical Support Manager at Composites One. “Closed molding tends to be cleaner than open mold, where you may have a shop floor that’s covered with overspray, chopped glass, and cardboard.”

At the same time, closed mold limits worker exposure to chemicals used in composites manufacturing. Reber also notes the increased controls available with closed mold using standard operating procedures. “As an engineer, I’m all about any kind of process controls. Anything customers can do in their shop to control factors as simple as the ambient temperature can make a difference. You have more control over some of these factors with closed molding, which helps lead to efficiencies and more seamless working conditions.” said Reber.

Another efficiency factor of closed mold that offers improved comfort for employees is the reduced requirement for personal protective equipment (PPE). “In open mold, they may wear a full Tyvek® suit as well as gloves, a respirator and safety glasses, whereas closed mold may just require gloves and safety glasses, and possibly a respirator for mixing resin. Particularly in the summertime, wearing a Tyvek suit and respirator in hot temperatures is not comfortable. Turnover in certain areas of the facility, particularly around gel coating, spray booth, and the trimming area where employees are fully suited, tends to have a higher turnover than the rest of the shop,” added Reber.

Kevin Jackson, Manager of Process Materials Applications at Composites One, weighs in, “Moving from open to closed molding is massive in terms of worker conditions. When you’re going from open mold to closed mold, there are a lot of health and safety issues that you can talk about, but just the quality of life for people that are working in those industries changes overnight.”

Quality of work and productivity are certainly improved. With closed mold comes process repeatability and quality consistency, eliminating much of the rework that is spent fixing defects during production. “Shops might have a dozen people solely dedicated to repair and rework every day,” explains Reber. “So even if you could get that down from 12 people to four people, that’s a huge savings.”

Kitting solutions speed up production

Kitting solutions are another manufacturing efficiency that create improved working conditions, namely in Aerospace plants where health and safety are integral, and where Jackson says, “They are pristine places because we’re making airplanes and people are flying in them around at 30,000 feet. There’s no room for error.”

With the availability of complete custom kits that include all required materials for production, floor workers are not lugging and storing large amounts of material. The complete kits are delivered to where the laminator sits, so there is efficiency in working at a singular station with a kit of materials that is significantly lighter than the original materials. Here, it’s easy to justify the cost of kits, with the benefits being time, cost, and waste improvements from cutting materials from roll goods on the manufacturing floor.

Further, custom kitting solutions eliminate the potential for mistakes or injury to employees that could occur from operating machinery or loading roles of heavy prepreg onto the cutting tables. By eliminating the cutting work from the shop, it creates a safer environment for workers. They can be relocated from the cutting table to layup positions, so they’re performing core competencies and becoming critically involved in the manufacturing of parts as opposed to administrative work and cutting materials.

Prepreg kitting solutions for Aerospace

When it comes to prepreg, materials need to be stored in a freezer and thawed prior to use in the production process. Kitting also relieves the administrative burden associated with temperature-sensitive materials and allows technicians to focus on manufacturing rates. It also eliminates the portion of the employees’ time spent doing non-core competencies—cutting pattern pieces vs. making parts—allowing them to focus on performing tasks that are revenue-generating for the company.

Lisa Ewald, Director of Aerospace at Composites One, explains the added benefits of prepreg kitting solutions. “Prepreg is tricky compared to other materials because it’s a perishable product as well as time and temperature sensitive. Prepreg requires another level of care and documentation.”

Ewald explains the huge burden that lands on procurement to keep materials in-house, due to the number of different materials they are responsible for purchasing as well as the variety of product lead times, shelf life, out time, and minimum order quantities. “If a manufacturer is building an aerospace wing that includes multiple types of prepreg materials, each item will have its own minimum order quantity, its own shelf life, and out life. Another issue is having enough room in the freezer. Kitting relieves the ergonomics of managing the various material on hand in the freezer and on the shop floor while allowing procurement more time to focus on managing other necessary supply chains. That administrative burden is big. And when you buy a kit, it’s all done for you.”

While Aerovac provides process material bagging kits, prepreg kitting partners such as Mission Critical provide supplies that are not only cut, but stacked and debulked, saving significant time from debulking each single layer at a time. Referred to as a charge, customers can receive the full layup of the part, ready to drop in the mold and autoclave cure, offering a significant time-savings that is performed with expertise and uniformity. Kitting also eliminates significant scrap materials and associated waste.

“With kitting, all you’re holding is production-ready inventory, and you’re eliminating the cutting, thawing, administration burden, and certainly the supply chain logistics, as opposed to having to manage all of the materials that go into the kit,” explains Ewald. “Kits improve working conditions and set up employees for success by eliminating the complicated administration and the physical maneuvering of materials.”

Further, “When you buy a kit, all of the materials have been inspected, so you know you are getting quality materials that are production ready,” says Ewald. “You’re not going to be unrolling the material, putting it on a cutting table, and potentially realizing there are defects that cause you to throw material away.”

The Aerospace industry is short-staffed like many industries. Ewald adds, “In a world where labor is so tight and in demand, the ability to focus on making parts and putting resources used for cutting plies back into the revenue-generating areas of the business is a significant opportunity.”

The benefit of manufacturers partnering with Composites One to manage the parent material inventory and complicated supply chain is massive. “The cash flow associated with ply-cutting materials in-house is also enormous, because you must inventory all the different parent materials and the finished goods. So, the idea that you could eliminate that cash output until right before you’re going to make the part is a huge advantage, and one of the greatest values of using kits,” adds Ewald.

As technical composites experts and a composites-specific distributor, Composites One has the technical acumen to work with customers to set up the custom kitting process and ensure it meets all their quality requirements. At Composites One, working together with customers through the quality and approval process of outsourcing kits is especially beneficial in the highly regulated Aerospace industry.

At Composites One and Aerovac, we strive to be innovative and dependable and to deliver results for our customers. Our Technical and Advanced Composites Teams offer expert knowledge of closed mold and advanced processes, and advanced composites materials like prepreg, along with the experience that comes from being the leader in providing materials management and logistics solutions for demanding markets. In Aerospace, Marine, Wind Energy, and beyond, our industry-leading distribution model and Technical Team are ready to support manufacturers that are using composites to design the innovations of tomorrow.