Women in Composites – Sharon Swan, Director, LSM Advanced Composites

Sharon Swan is competitive, in business as in life. She’s a champion rally co-driver and had a career in the timber industry before founding Toowoomba-based LSM Advanced Composites with her husband and co-Director, Liam Mahoney. Twenty five years later, the adventure of making lightweight high-performance carbon fibre composites clearly hasn’t waned.

Written by Kerryn Caulfield, Executive Director, Composites Australia Inc.

For Sharon, their greatest achievement has been to build a unique business and being acknowledged and respected for their high quality of workmanship, after all, Sharon quips, in the beginning the only company doing pre-preg autoclave composite components was Boeing.

The couple are retired rallying enthusiasts and successfully competed in many National and State Championships. This passion for speed created a deep understanding of the performance characteristics of carbon fibre vehicle parts and their limitations in extreme conditions. As a result, since forming in 1996, the Toowoomba-based company has been making lightweight, structural and non-structural carbon fibre components for all manner of vehicles, from racing cars, mining equipment and unique bespoke projects drones and radar dishes.

LSM Composites was founded on their unique knowledge of engineering and building autoclaves, and curing prepreg (pre-impregnated) carbon fibre structural and non-structural components. At the competition level, autoclave cured carbon fibre parts lighten the car and provide optimum protective strength. Sharon explained that when the pair was first driving, carbon fibre was hard to get and components had to be ordered and shipped from the UK with long lead times. “As an engineer, Liam specialised in autoclave technology, and I’d known it from my time in the timber industry. We put our knowledge to use and built our own autoclave as a proactive solution to getting the parts we needed,” said Sharon.
LSM has worked with racing car designers on the composite specifications for Holden Commodores and the Chevrolet Camaro (due to debut in the Australian racing circuit in 2023).

Sharon explains “There is a lot of satisfaction in making components with unique properties particularly when they are used to protect people and assets. From a safety perspective, a weakness in a part is usually because of an air void which can lead to disastrous consequences. An autoclave consolidates the prepreg laminas through simulated elevated pressure and temperature which result in a uniform high-end material system. The high pressure compresses the part and prevents air voids from forming as well as ensuring a perfect surface quality of carbon fibre prepreg parts”.

Another unique LSM product is its own ‘occupant protective system’ (OPS) for the mining industry, designed and manufactured exclusively by the company. “Mine sites are hazardous environments. Mining debris such as off-cuts, rock bolts and drill sets can be flung up by the vehicles’ tyres and pierce the floor pan injuring the occupant. Vehicles need to be outfitted properly to manage these driving conditions. We developed an aftermarket composite flooring system that acts as a ballistic panel to protect occupants,” explained Sharon.

LSM's ‘occupant protective system’ for the mining industry.
LSM Advanced Composites carbon fibre Challenger subsphere
LSM Advanced Composites carbon fibre robot
LSM Advanced Composites complex parts made from carbon fibre

LSM also manufactures the carbon fibre fuselages for Textron Systems Australia’s drones (or Aerosonde Small Unmanned Aircraft System (SUAS)) that are contracted by the US Navy to fly in conditions too dangerous for manned aircraft. Armed with meteorological sensors and LSM components, the Aerosonde was the first unmanned aircraft to fly into the eye of a hurricane to measure the temperature, pressure, humidity and wind velocity.

In recent years, Sharon and Liam have expanded their manufacturing footprint by acquiring another Toowoomba company, Silicon Rubber Extrusion, that specialises in extruded profiles made from food grade peroxide and platinum cured polymers in a range of colours.

LSM became a financial member of Composites Australia in its first year of business and Sharon became a Board member in 2007 and served as President from 2008 until 2010. “The association is a means for us to connect with the wider composites industry and those with a shared passion for making things. For me, the Australian composites sector remains fascinating and we are all continually learning new things,” advises Sharon. LSM has three autoclaves that can manufacture very small complex items through to the very large. The largest autoclave, which Sharon affectionately calls the ‘Big Girl,’ has a useable diameter of 2.4 metres and a working length of 8 metres, maximum operating temperatures of 250C and a maximum operating pressure of 200psi (14BAR). The production capability extends to a number of 3D printers, and 5 and 6 axis high precision CNC machines used for design and prototyping as well as machining and trimming. LSM’s component fabrication service is complemented with full assembly services.