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Synergy in Materials

At the National Composite Center in Dayton, Ohio, engineers and researchers have created a clearinghouse to further the development of composite materials, in the process creating jobs and a host of new and improved products

By Pamela Gregg

As the owner of a Honda Nighthawk motorcycle, I like to think I can spot a fellow cyclist by their appearance, and I'd be less than honest if I didn't admit to stereotyping Harley Davidson riders. There are the atypical riders, the Rubbies (Rich Urban Bikers) who ride a Harley for the status, and then you have the true Harley riders, the traditionalist diehards who bleed orange. True Harley riders have a look that sets them apart, one that says "hardworking," "easy going," and "weekends are made for two-wheeling."

So I was a bit surprised when I first met Lou Luedtke, president and CEO of the National Composite Center (NCC) in Dayton, Ohio and the man credited with taking the nonprofit R&D organization from fledgling to thriving. I expected the usual business suit, thinking the captain of one of the country's most innovative composites enterprises must possess exceptional leadership and management skills and business savvy. Luedtke's professional presence conveyed all those, yet I picked up a strong Harley vibe as well based on his beard, haircut, and physique. In the parking space closest to the front door sat a sporty Honda Shadow. But lo and behold, the bike didn't belong to Luedtke. "I wish it did," he says with that distinctive sigh fellow bikers understand. "I used to ride, but I sold my bike when my wife and I started raising our family."

These days, Luedtke's adventures run a different course in keeping the NCC at the forefront of the advanced materials industry. It works in partnership with other major regional players in composites such as the Air Force Research Lab at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base (WPAFB), the University of Dayton Research Institute (UDRI), and industrialists such as General Motors, General Electric, Boeing, Honeywell, and Owens Corning. They aim to turn the Miami Valley surrounding Dayton into Composite Valley. "Our goal is to become a vital composites resource for Ohio and the nation," Luedtke states.

Many Advantages
Introduced in the 1970s for military applications, high-performance composites have become the preferred material in countless applications because of their light weight, strength, durability, and versatility. Composites are created by combining two or more traditional materials to produce a compound product that outperforms its individual components. Composites comprise a matrix material, typically an engineering polymer, reinforced with ceramic, metal, or polymer fibers. The fibers serve as the primary load carriers; the matrix transfers the load from fiber to fiber. Lighter than steel and aluminum, composites resistant corrosion and fatigue, giving them much longer life than metallic materials. Easily contoured, one complex composite part can replace an assembly of multiple metal pieces welded or otherwise bonded together, eliminating the potential for failure at joints or seams. So why doesn't everyone use this marvel material? The high costs of fabrication have daunted manufacturers.

Enter NCC, which came to life in 1996. With the backing of its 54 industry members and government and community partners, the nonprofit group has already made great strides in developing and commercializing efficient and economical composite products and manufacturing techniques tailored to the needs of each customer.

Development work on NCC actually began in 1995. Responding to a sluggish economy and ongoing employment reductions at WPAFB and several major Dayton employers, the Miami Valley Development Coalition (now Dayton Development Coalition) commissioned a study by UDRI to assess the strengths of the region. The study revealed that between UDRI, WPAFB, General Motors, and other local companies, the area had more than 450 scientists and engineers degreed in advanced materials, but no local or regional facility to take prototype research to the manufacturing level. UDRI recommended a kind of composites clearinghouse, a place where researchers and industry alike could go for resources to further develop and commercialize advanced materials technology, thereby creating and retaining high-wage jobs in existing industry and drawing other composites businesses to Dayton and Ohio.

Along with Dayton's ample regional research and engineering resources, two other factors have contributed to NCC's success. First, the Miami Valley's core industries lie in aerospace, infrastructure, and automotive manufacturing -- markets ripe to benefit from composites technology. Second, "We have the facilities and equipment to take a design from prototype to full-scale pilot production," Luedtke says. "That makes us unique in the world. There are other composite centers, but none have this capacity. And we're a neutral factory environment."

NCC's technical oversight committee helps the organization identify the most promising new technologies for development and draws from member fees to research each project's potential. If the technology proves viable, NCC pursues government funding to fully develop the project. NCC employs 13 engineers, 12 technicians, and six administrative staff.

Luedtke and NCC's engineering director Scott Reeve epitomize the engineering experience at the center. With a mechanical engineering degree from Milwaukee School of Engineering, Luedtke has spent his career in technical sales and growing and turning around businesses. Reeve is a degreed aeronautical engineer from Purdue University specializing in advanced materials and structures. He served as a composites engineer and manager for the advanced structures and materials division of Lockheed Martin Aeronautical Systems and as lead engineer on several projects for McDonnell Aircraft Company.

Cutting-Edge Processes
The center employs a variety of manufacturing processes, including its signature Rapid Fiber Preform (RFP). One of the first organizations to make preforms with robots, NCC refined its techniques to create RFP, which uses robotic arms to chop and spray fibers onto a shaped screen to make the preform, the initial shape for the part. The robots can be programmed for precise fiber placement even in complex forms, reducing scrap and material waste. The preform is then placed in a mold and injected with liquid resin, which hardens into a solid object. NCC used RFP in its first automotive contract, which involved producing composite pickup truck beds (not liners, but the actual bed body), now marketed under the name ProTec in the Chevy Silverado.

With the success of the process in automotive use, the NCC team started thinking in terms of aerospace. That led to a contract with the Air Force Research Laboratory at WPAFB, and the center started producing fairings, tailcones, and other parts at significant costs savings over traditional materials. It also led to a critical donation of a $5 million gantry system from Boeing Phantom Works, which will be fitted with a large robotic fiber-placement arm. When assembled, the robot will stand 45 feet long, 25 feet wide and 22 feet high, with the capacity to produce composite parts as large as 14 by 43 feet -- an incredible size in the composites world.

After refining the RFP process even further, NCC signed with Dayton's Lion Apparel, which produces firefighting gear and other apparel, to develop a better fire helmet. Using a small-scale preformer, NCC produces 500 helmets a week for Lion, making this robot the highest-producing preformer in the world. As I watched the process in action on a tour of NCC's facility, the robotic arm swiftly and smoothly sprayed thousands of chopped fibers into the shape of a fire helmet.

In a process known as precision filament winding, the reinforcing fibers are aligned in specific directions, rather than randomly. Originally developed to produce composite springs for passenger cars and light-duty trucks, precision filament winding is proving viable in several new markets, including the medical field. Parts manufactured with this process have an inherent dynamic quality that increases flexibility and reduces vibration, making them well suited for products such as artificial limbs and hospital gurneys.

One of the tougher industry nuts to crack for composites has been bridge building, says Scott Reeve, who doubles as manager of NCC's Composites for Infrastructure (C4I) program. The higher expense of raw composites materials over traditional materials such as widely-used steel-reinforced concrete have kept the market from embracing composite bridge decks. As another factor, proving a bridge deck will hold up under live operating conditions takes time. "The bridge industry is cautious. Public safety is an issue."

Still, NCC has managed to get a foothold in Ohio's bridge rebuilding market by teaming with composite manufacturer Hardcore Composites in Project 100. The state-backed initiative is designed to capitalize on the anticipated growth of Fiber Reinforced Polymer (FRP) composites for bridge decks and other infrastructure applications. After a year and only nine bridge rebuilds into the 100-bridge program, however, the state pulled funding, prompting NCC to launch the C4I program. Partnering with Martin Marietta Composites of Raleigh, North Carolina, NCC signed on to rebuild six more bridge decks under C4I. They have successfully completed four.

Why composite bridge decks? The up-front expense is more than compensated for in increased deck life and reduced maintenance costs, Reeve states. "Traditional bridge decks last between 10 and 20 years. Ours should last 75 years." Lightweight yet durable and rapidly installed, FRP bridge decks resist corrosion. Over time, water finds a way through the cracks created by weather and day-to-day wear in traditional bridge deck materials, rusting the reinforcing steel and causing concrete around it to shift and crumble.

In another arena, Luedtke reveals, "Our board of trustees has just approved a program focused on the development of thermoplastics, which allow you to reheat and reshape them, as opposed to thermosetting composites created by a chemical reaction, which can't be undone. The use of thermoplastics has several advantages, including recyclability. It's really on the cutting edge from the standpoint of manufacturing."

Filling Many Roles
Using these and other processes, NCC is now producing a variety of products for aerospace, automotive, and infrastructure applications. "We provide new technologies for existing businesses, help entrepreneurs get started, and create spinoff companies," Luedtke says. "And we don't compete with other research entities for research dollars, but we expand on their functions."

"Our give-back to the state and community is jobs," Luedtke adds. "So far, NCC has preserved or created nearly 200 jobs for the Greater Dayton area and is fast becoming a magnet for companies who want to locate around us." Indeed, in 2001, the composites division of Martin Marietta, the nation's second-largest producer of construction aggregates, relocated its bridge assembly operation to Ohio from Pennsylvania to partner with NCC.

Recently, the National Composite Center received $2 million in Wright Capital Project funds from the state of Ohio to purchase a large-scale preformer system and resin molding equipment. Once assembled with the gantry from Boeing Phantom Works, the large-scale composite parts system will begin producing parts for the Air Force and local industry. "There's been a lot of interest in large-scale composite parts," Luedtke states. "We already have industrial customers waiting for this system to come online so we can develop products specifically to their needs." In exchange for the $2 million in Wright Capital funds, NCC promised Ohio 150 jobs with an average salary of $50,000. "That will have an annual economic impact of $52 million for the state."

With the many successes of NCC and the impact it has had, I doubt Lou Luedtke misses riding a motorcycle. But maybe someday, if he changes his mind, he'll be able to park a gleaming new ride made almost entirely of composite materials in the parking space closest to NCC's front door. His dual images of Harley rider and businessman in a high-tech world would meld in perfect harmony.

For more information on the National Composite Center, visit

Pamela Gregg is a freelance writer and also communications coordinator at the University of Dayton Research Institute in Dayton, Ohio.

Progressive Engineer
Editor: Tom Gibson
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©2004 Progressive Engineer