Welsh Composites Consortium

Work with Welsh SMEs on composite materials

The College of Engineering at Swansea University was the leader of the Welsh Composites Consortium (WCC), which was established to collaborate with Welsh SMEs by sharing knowledge, skills and best practice in the use of composite materials.

Building Blocks

Composite materials (or composites for short) are engineered materials made from two or more constituent materials with significantly different physical or chemical properties which remain separate and distinct on a macroscopic level within the finished structure.

Sectors involved in the uptake and development of composite materials are mostly in high performance  such as aerospace and defence. Other high volume markets are marine and automotive. In Wales, the marine sector is significant and has scope for expansion, however the automotive sector has been slower to embrace composite materials, apart from in high-performance applications, but this is changing.

Composite materials are also gaining importance in a wide range of applications including construction, agriculture, health, and energy. Across Wales, there is a burgeoning activity in sports and leisure applications, where composites are integral. The WCC has had significant involvement with this sector, where most companies are small, but need to be able to understand and to use composites to survive against competition.

Composite challenges

The Industrial Training Network funded by the European Social Fund under Objective One and the Knowledge Transfer Network funded by the Welsh Assembly Government have been two very successful projects carried out under the umbrella of the Welsh Composites Consortium.

Starting in September 2006, Swansea University together with four partners from Welsh HE and FE Institutions (Swansea Metropolitan University, Bangor University, Pembrokeshire College and Glyndwr University) have developed training material in composites at a university undergraduate and postgraduate level (NVQ levels 4 and 5).

Dr Anke Skrobek, the project manager at Swansea University, said:

"WCC events have heightened interest from companies and institutions all across Wales, as well as from England and Scotland. Some training materials which we piloted at events over the past two years have been extremely successful. They've been very well received by delegates - ranging from employees and directors of small and large companies, to students and members of government organisations.

"The Knowledge Transfer Network has also grown steadily over the duration of the project and 17 new network members further enhanced the knowledge and skills base of the original partners. Our good contacts with the National Composites Network were established with their composites programme director becoming part of the WCC steering group and NCN officials speaking at WCC events.

"We've also compiled a database with contact details of companies, institutions and governmental bodies relevant to the composites sector and to date the database has got approximately 500 entries. Networking activities have also enabled compilation of detailed knowledge and capabilities of most of the partners and some of the leading Welsh composites businesses, and at the networking events WCC team members provided specific assistance to Welsh SMEs, where many resulted in advisory visits and initial scoping projects.

"The results are fantastic, as the WCC has identified most companies within Wales who are currently involved in composite materials, through design, supply chain, processing or manufacturing. The team has given specific assistance to approximately 50% of the SMEs in Objective One areas, and considering that most of the companies are very small and have little time to spare it is a great achievement to meet so many of them."

Economic effect

Feedback collected from more than 300 people confirmed the success of the network but also the growing need of knowledge transfer in composites. Anke explains, "It is clear from the interaction between the WCC and Welsh SMEs that there are shortfalls in qualified personnel within the composites industry.

"Much of the composites work in Wales is using 'lower tech' composites, and whilst there is a good understanding of the use of these types of material the more advanced carbon-fibre composites and advanced particulate composites are less understood, with very few companies utilising them at all. Certainly, with few exceptions, the use of pre-impregnated materials, autoclaving, metal matrix materials and nano-composites, are practically unheard of in Wales and these are very much at the cutting edge of composite materials with a demand outstripping supply in the growth sectors."

These WCC projects have proved that there is a strong need for knowledge transfer from specialists into industry on a theoretical and practical basis to ensure international competitiveness.