Silent witness of the composites industry

1st Mar 2017

Acoustic emission measurement of fatigue tested hydrogen fuel cell storage cylinder

Characterising and investigating composite material properties relies on modern equipment and the expertise of skilled materials scientists. But what types of testing do laboratories conduct and why is it so important? Composites in Manufacturing reports.

With the demand for stronger, lighter and environmentally-friendly products on the up, materials scientists play a crucial role in developing the structural materials of tomorrow. By running a variety of laboratory tests, scientists can characterise a material; check if it’s fit for market; identify quality issues; solve processing problems and determine why a product has failed. They can even perform reverse or back engineering – revealing how, and from what, a material has been made.

One of the fastest growing polymer and composites laboratories in the UK is R-TECH Materials – used by manufacturers in aerospace, marine and automotive industries worldwide.

Often described as the ‘silent witness’ of the composites industry thanks to its expertise at uncovering the characteristics of any material from plastics and rubbers to glass and carbon fibre composites, R-TECH’s ability to combine sophisticated testing and characterisation techniques with its in-house expertise enables its clients to fully understand the new materials they are producing and how they will behave in service.

Based in South Wales – and on the doorstep of the Bristol aerospace hub – R-TECH tests the mechanical, thermal and chemical properties of non-metallic materials, components and products for clients such as Lloyds Register, Haydale Composite Solutions and Sigmatex.

R-TECH’s quick testing turnaround enabled Sigmatex – which manufactures carbon fibre textiles for the composites industry – to meet a product launch deadline at last year’s Advanced Engineering Show. Gerard Turk, Sigmatex’s programme manager, comments: “R-TECH was able to offer the stringent level of testing needed, providing accurate, detailed information in a flexible, efficient and seamless process.”

R-TECH has also performed standard tests on Haydale Composite Solutions’ innovative graphene enhanced composite prepreg materials. Peter Hansen, Haydale’s engineering manager, says: “R-TECH has impressed us with its level of service. It performs high quality tests to tight deadlines, which is exactly the type of service we need to support our material development programmes.”

Tried and tested

Accredited to perform testing in tension, compression, flexure, shear and hardness to ISO and ASTM standards under controlled temperature and humidity conditions, R-TECH’s reputation for the accuracy and quality of its testing has been recognised by UKAS which recently awarded it accreditation for a further 13 test standards.

But R-TECH isn’t resting on its laurels. “We always strive to provide our customers with a better and more comprehensive service. This year we’re on track to achieve further testing standards and secure aerospace approval from Nadcap,” says Dr Geraint Havard, R-TECH’s composite manager.

But apart from its impressive accreditations, just what is it that makes R-TECH stand out from the crowd when it comes to composite testing and analysis?

Tensile Test ISO 527-2

According to Dr Havard, it’s a two-pronged approach. First is R-TECH’s laboratory especially designed for composites testing – be it a simple one-off set of tests to larger scale research and development projects. R-TECH’s in-house workshop facilities, means it can design and manufacture rigs to adapt its test equipment for bespoke testing.

Indeed, its laboratory certainly contains an impressive amount of kit. The latest addition, is its top-of-the-range Zwick 250kN universal testing machine – the first of its kind in the UK to run on the latest TestXpert III software – which can test materials at loads from 1N to 250kN in a temperature range of -70°C to 250°C.

Dr Havard, comments: “The Zwick can do any type of sample test be it tensile, compression, flexure or shear. All our testing is performed under controlled temperature and humidity and we can also conduct pre-conditioning – be it liquid, humidity or temperature – which is essential for the aerospace sector.”

R-TECH can prepare laminates and machine samples in-house to customer requirements. And when it comes to forensic investigations, its Hirox digital microscope and Zeiss scanning electron microscope with EDX micro-analysis are the go-to pieces of kit for failure investigation and characterisation of both macrostructure and microstructure of materials.

Strength in depth

But the second reason R-TECH is head and shoulders above other materials laboratories lies in the skill and many years of combined engineering, materials science and chemistry experience of its 22-strong team – three of which have PhDs.

Optical microscope image of sandwich panel

R-TECH’s managing director, Dr Tony Franks, explains: “Having sponsored six research students, we’ve got strong links to the composite facilities at both Swansea and Cardiff University. Developing research students and retaining them after their degree is central to our business philosophy and is a major factor in how we acquire our cutting-edge expertise.”

Take Rebecca Blows, a 24 year-old engineering doctorate student at Swansea University. After gaining a first-class degree in Forensic Science, R-TECH sponsored her Masters in the creep behaviour of epoxy resins for the marine industry. R-TECH is now also sponsoring Blows’ doctorate, in partnership with North Thin Ply Technology – a Swiss-based specialist, which will focus on testing novel thin ply carbon fibre composites.

Commenting on the partnership, James Austin, CEO of North Thin Ply Technology, said: “We’re excited to be working with R-TECH on this project. It’s testing expertise and know-how will really strengthen our understanding of our products and how we can fully utilise its characteristics for our customers benefit.”

Indeed, so impressed was Lloyd’s Register with R-TECH that it appointed the company as its global laboratory partner in 2012, providing testing services in the field of non-metallic materials and collaborating on common research themes.

“With our state-of-the-art equipment, and well qualified and experienced staff, R-TECH’s focus is on building long-term relationships with clients, based on excellent customer service,” says Dr Franks.

With this type of attitude, it’s easy to see why R-TECH is one of the fastest growing polymer and composites laboratories in the UK.