Founding Link Composites a mere five years ago as a fledgling start-up, William Robinson, embarked on an intense and heady journey. Today, the company has evolved as an impressively automated composite sandwich panel manufacturer, boasting a remarkable 500 per cent increase in capacity in recent times. This rapid growth and development signifies a ride that was as challenging as it was rewarding.
Link Composites’ product portfolio includes lightweight sandwich panels, infused panels, fibreglass parts, extrusions and laminates. Its production methods include resin infusion, vacuum bagging, a hot melt continuous panel lamination line and CNC kitcutting technology that produces complex shapes and batch components with 100 per cent traceability.
The company’s principal product, advanced composite sandwich panels, is used across the caravan and recreational vehicle industry, modular housing, marine craft, as well as trucking and mining industries. These panels consist of high-strength fibreglass reinforced with an XPS, PVC or PET core sourced from Europe. Its range of bespoke constructions of outer skins and cores delivers notable strength-to-weight ratios, thermal insulation, fire protection properties, shock resilience and resistance to moisture. Designed and manufactured to be a structural alternative to legacy materials, a complete panel set for, say, a caravan including floor, walls and one-piece roof panels – can be cut in volumes to a preprogramed shape ready for further assembly without the need for mechanical fasteners, significantly reducing their build times.
Now nestled within the Coolum Eco-Industrial Park, the company is co-located with a number of customers, namely ZoneRV and Cure Marine. Link Composites Managing Director Will Robinson said moving had both wrung logistic costs out of their supply chain and expedited plans to automate production. ‘We were running two shifts making panels on seven tables which limited our ability to scale up. So we decided to design and build the advanced hot melt adhesive line ourselves with the objective of producing longer panels at a rapid pace.’
The semi-automated line was built with a double sided adhesive spreader and calendar roller that optimises compaction pressure during the layup process. It uses hot melt moisture cure Polyurethane, commonly called ‘PUR hot melt’ that forms a strong initial bond and then continues to strengthen as the adhesive reacts with moisture. According to Will, the PUR has an open time of 90 seconds after which crosslinking occurs as it cools to form a strong, permanent bond. The line can now manufacture panels up to 15 metres in length at four metres per minute.
Will has now turned to turbo charging production flow with a fourth CNC machine that is once again being designed and built in-house. Features include auto dust control and tool changes and vacuum suction for holding fibreglass panel parts down.
The move and associated investment in new equipment was assisted by a Production Automation Grant through the Queensland Manufacturing Excellence Forum. Company relocation, expansion and automation were also supported through Council’s Sunshine Coast Economic Resurgence Plan which was established to provide support to local business and to assist with the region’s economic recovery, post COVID. According to Will, the investment in automation has delivered greater reproducible quality and improved consistency across products resulting in the staggering 500 per cent increase in capacity. The company’s growth into robotics has also required upskilling staff and new recruits into specialist roles in engineering and mechatronics.
While Link Composites has ridden the caravan boom detonated by COVID, Will believes that Rapid Infrastructure Development (RID) presents the next opportunity for the application of sandwich panels in the industrial and commercial building, cold storage, residential construction, and modular housing sectors. This growth is largely due to the panels’ load-bearing structural properties, faster construction methods and the possibilities of significant reduction in the environmental impact of using recycled PET in residential construction.
“As with our RV customers, we can design, manufacture, cut and supply complete panel sets that will significantly reduce their build times.” Will believes that the future of the construction industry lies in the transition to a panel system and the reeducation of tradespeople about the use of advanced materials. This involves a particular focus on chemical adhesion, heralding a new era of efficiency and sustainability in construction that offers a solution to the housing crisis.