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Industry, university education collaboration on bio-composites

15 March 2016

The University of Queensland is building relationships with local composites manufacturers to provide students with applied research and education opportunities and the businesses with the opportunity to explore new technologies and solutions.

For Northgate-based composites transport specialists, Fibreglass Design Panels, the relationship began at the 2015 Composites Australia CRC-ACS Conference, where director Leona Reif met Michael Heitzmann, a lecturer and one of the main drivers behind the university’s recently expanded UQ Composites Group.

“UQ was keen to link their students with industry when undertaking their research projects and we were interested in exploring new materials and applications for composites and supporting education in the composites sector,” says Ms Reif.

The decision was made to collaborate on the development of a biocomposites solution for one of FDP’s existing products – a rear bumper bar used on food van conversions to suit trayback utilities.

“Biocomposites have been around for more than a few decades but the number of commercialised applications remains very low despite a lot of effort in this field. This is partly due to the complex supply chain which in many applications is not yet continuous from field-to-product, however, a lack of end-product focus in the research is at least partially to blame,” says Dr Heitzmann.
Fibreglass Design Panels offered practical support, providing the tooling and advice on manufacturing processes and current costings plus a glass fibre product sample for comparison to the bio-fibre under investigation.

Students, Nathan Basford and Fabian Fullenwarth, visited the factory several times during the six-month project which involved a comprehensive set of “coupon level” tests to establish the material properties required for simulation and design. In the design phase, the students used finite element methods to develop a bumper that matched the existing fibreglass version in strength and stiffness. Ultimately, a series of manufacturing trials developed the manufacturing procedures and produced two product demonstrator products.

The project used natural fibre non-woven mats, kindly supplied by the Composite Innovation Centre in Manitoba/Canada, along with the detailed business case for the mats.

The project demonstrated the use of agri-fibre composites has the potential to achieve a cost, as well as a weight advantage, at comparable mechanical performance to a fibreglass design. However, the project also demonstrated that the gains are relatively modest and heavily influenced by material selection, component geometry and manufacturing method.

The students graduated having gained research skills and knowledge of composites and invaluable industry-based experience. “The project also showed that industry/university collaborations don’t always require lengthy funding applications and complicated legal agreements,” says Dr Heitzmann.

For Fibreglass Design Panels, the project marks the beginning of a working relationship with the university that can further explore the application of bio-composites, specifically targeting the requirements of product end-users.

Caption: L-R: Dieter Heydenrych, production manager with Fibreglass Design Panels discusses the biocomposite demonstrator product with its developers, University of Queensland engineering students Nathan Basford and Fabian Fullenwarth.

Dr Michael Heitzmann
Centre for Advanced Materials Processing and Manufacturing (AMPAM)
University of Queensland
Phone: 07 3365 3579