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Engineering worldwide is experiencing an explosion in the use of advanced materials. The automotive industry is witnessing a 20 percent annual grow rate in the use of carbon fibers and carbon fiber reinforced polymers (CFRPs). In Europe and North America particularly, the automotive demand for and application of CFRP will outstrip the supply by 2020. Aerospace companies are following the lead of automotive manufacturers, aggressively developing new materials and manufacturing processes in an effort to reduce costs and waste. One of the key challenges to realizing the benefits of composite materials is a skills shortage – recruitment across industries has not kept pace with the explosion in demand.
Dr. David Hughes, senior lecturer in materials engineering at Teesside University, is addressing the skills gap through research and instruction in composites engineering. “What we find in the U.K is there are lots of people working on composite materials in the broadest sense and many working on manufacturing methods, but the greatest skills gap is for people who can design in composites,” says Dr. Hughes. “We’ve really tried to address that.”
With over 85 years of teaching excellence since its founding as Constantine Technical College in 1930, Teesside University has been located in Middlesbrough in the North Yorkshire area of England on the banks of the River Tees. The primary aim of its School of Science, Engineering and Design is to develop the next generation of problem solvers, innovators and leaders that employers and society need, equipping them with skills, knowledge and confidence to launch their careers. Teesside as a region is among the UK’s best performing areas for innovation (Enterprise Research Centre, 2015) and the University is positioned to be a key part of that. “Teesside University has invested over £270 million in its campus over recent years and is investing an additional £300 million over the next 10 years to ensure it stays cutting edge,” says Dr. Hughes. “In the areas of digital manufacturing and composites we consider ourselves experts with a dedicated research team, and there are not many universities anywhere doing quite what we are doing, and that is making a difference for the region.”
In partnership with Siemens, Teesside University is using the Fibersim™ portfolio of software for composites engineering in its teaching and research. With about 60 licenses of Fibersim, the university has fully embedded the software in its aerospace engineering courses. Teesside is the only university in the U.K. to embed Fibersim into its degree programs. “We are the only university in the UK currently using Fibersim for teaching” says Dr. Hughes. “With Fibersim we teach people in a digital environment about how you think differently about designing in composites as opposed to designing in plastics, metals and other materials.”
Teesside also uses NX™ software for product development and NX Nastran® software for structural simulation, also from Siemens PLM Software, as part of a comprehensive instruction program that includes practical hands-on projects and facilities for composite layup, manufacturing and testing. “Our goal is to create students who understand digital tools,” Dr. Hughes explains, “so we use Fibersim, but we use other digital tools in the degree course as well, to help students understand developments in engineering and how markets are changing. More and more is done in a simulation environment rather than in more traditional development processes. Research is key at Teesside. Many of our challenges are in helping emerging composites sectors transition to using composites. That transition from metal or plastic parts isn’t straightforward, and developing some of the tools, processes and intelligent solutions to those sorts of problems is part of our reputation as a university. We have a good reputation in polymers and polymer composites, and the relationship with Siemens and Fibersim is really part of that.”
Dr. Hughes’s module in composites is mandatory in the aerospace degree program, and each semester 40 to 60 students are enrolled in the class. “A core learning outcome in the aerospace degree is knowledge of aerospace materials, which include high-temperature alloys and composite materials,” says Dr. Hughes. “It’s a core topic.”
Designing with composites is fundamentally different than working with metals, and there are challenges in getting students to think in new ways. “I think the biggest challenge is to teach students to think anisotropic rather than isotropic, to think different properties, different directions, as opposed to when you have the same properties in all directions,” Dr. Hughes explains. “It makes the structure much harder to solve, but the mechanical benefits are significant. The second challenge is manufacturing: most students are well-versed in traditional manufacturing methods – casting, rolling, forging, machining. But many composite processes are much newer, and the more efficient modern processes are relatively complex – particularly when they involve processes like over-molding − so a re-education is required in terms of manufacturing methods.”
Fibersim is a valuable tool in this re-education. The software creates a digital twin of a component that includes the material types, the layup, drop-offs and the details of how the component can be cut out and formed – everything needed for composites engineering. “Using Fibersim helps us because it shows the limitations of the process,” Dr. Hughes says. “It’s usually a great idea to have an incredibly complex top surface, but if it distorts all your fibers, then it’s not really worth starting with. You need to change geometry, you need to think constraints, you need to think about angles. And then there’s a wider understanding of building something up in layers, and understanding that not all the layers have to be the same – that you can have cores, that you can have surface plies, that the stress is not the same throughout the entire structure and that you can design specifically for that.”
Dr. Hughes’s first instructional step is to teach students about directional properties. “I will show them the effects of orientation, and we will actually make some single-ply or unidirectional composites and we will observe the effects, then go into the theory behind why the fibers carry the loads,” Dr. Hughes says. “I teach them simple Young’s modulus composite equations where I use the isostress/ isostrain assumptions, and I basically teach them the idea that composites can have different properties in different directions.”
Working in a tight, semester-long window, the students at Teesside University work through a series of projects that combine the use of Fibersim with hands-on sessions in the composites manufacturing lab.
The students can complete their first project with only six hours of instruction in the use of Fibersim. “That doesn’t sound like a lot of contact time,” Dr. Hughes explains, “but the amount of time that they are using the software on top of the teaching is obviously significant, and we are working with predesigned models.” Dr. Hughes has created tutorial videos for each of the project components, so that students can self- teach and apply the concepts. “Most of them have a zero starting place in terms of composites terminology, so we are upscaling them quite significantly,” says Dr. Hughes.
Students quickly learn the value of Fibersim from their experiences in the manufacturing lab. “In the lab we perform some wet layup, really simple, with standard reinforcements, and we make a composite,” says Dr. Hughes. “This is a ply, and we stack them up, this is the resin that is bonding it together. Then we run through the same process in the Fibersim; we’ll just do a nice simple shape, they’ll have some idea from what they’ve already done, and then we’ll explore directional properties early on when I’m really still demonstrating what the software can do and why it’s powerful.”
Fibersim’s value is also understood from complex real-world challenges in industry. “I have some quotes from industry contacts that talk about the complexities of the issues they are facing,” notes Dr. Hughes. “The number of plies that they use, when they get into hundreds of different plies – students quickly grasp that there is no way you can do this unless you go digital.”
Teesside University students love Fibersim software because it gives them freedom to experiment digitally. The limited time they spend in the manufacturing lab allows them to understand composites from a manufacturing point of view, through hands-on experience with processes like prepreg layup, autoclave, vacuum bagging and compression molding. But the lab time does not allow free experimentation for the broad range of design options available with composites.
“We take students through a series of design projects where we look at what happens in Fibersim if we change the ply orientation, how it affects the stress,” Dr. Hughes explains. “Because we use Siemens NX and NX Nastran as our analysis tools, we can take the Fibersim models and digitally analyze and understand the effects of those changes very quickly. The digital approach allows students to evaluate a much broader array of variables than we could ever do in the lab, iteration after iteration, analyzing the stress and considering the manufacturability as well.”
Teesside University is ranked the top university in the North East of England for graduates securing professional and managerial-level jobs within six months of graduating (Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education 2015-16) and has excellent employability statistics for its mechanical and aerospace students. Teesside University takes pride in making industry-ready engineers. “We don’t want to make engineers that can just think it,” says Dr. Hughes. “We want to make ones that when they go to a company, they are beneficial to that company.”