Don’t be surprised if Japanese OEMs lead the way on what my be the next big technology leap in mass-market auto design—bodies made with advanced plastic composites like those used in the Boeing Dreamliner still under development. Boeing’s sole supplier for the enormous amounts of composites required for the plane is Toray Industries, which co-located a production plant next to Boeing’s assembly factory near Seattle, WA. Toray is rapidly ramping up capacity to meet demand for the 787 and other projects, including future Airbus planes. Toray recently established a $24 million automotive center in Nagoya, Japan to develop advanced composites for cars. Its main mission will be to make the new lightweight systems more affordable. Use of carbon-fiber reinforced panels in the body of the new Tesla (all-electric) roadster adds $3,000 in cost per car—way more than cash-strapped American OEMs (and customers) can afford now. Regular fiberglass composites, such as those used on the Corvette, are less expensive, but much heavier.
Artificially created metamaterials are already appearing in niche applications like electronics, communications, and defense, says a new report from Lux Research. How quickly they become mainstream depends on cost-effective manufacturing methods, which will include additive manufacturing.
SpaceX has 3D printed and successfully hot-fired a SuperDraco engine chamber made of Inconel, a high-performance superalloy, using direct metal laser sintering (DMLS). The company's first 3D-printed rocket engine part, a main oxidizer valve body for the Falcon 9 rocket, launched in January and is now qualified on all Falcon 9 flights.
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and MIT have 3D-printed a new class of metamaterials that are both exceptionally light and have exceptional strength and stiffness. The new metamaterials maintain a nearly constant stiffness per unit of mass density, over three orders of magnitude.
Smart composites that let the material's structural health be monitored automatically and continuously are getting closer to reality. R&D partners in an EU-sponsored project have demonstrated what they say is the first complete, miniaturized, fiber-optic sensor system entirely embedded inside a fiber-reinforced composite.
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