Written by Kerryn Caulfield, Executive Director, Composites Australia Inc.
For Australians, caravanning isn’t merely a mode of travel; it’s a cherished tradition and alternative lifestyle, and a testament to our deep-seated love for adventure and the great outdoors.
According to Dave Biggar, Co-Founder and Managing Director of Sunshine RV manufacturing company Zone RV, caravans are the best adventure tools in the world. To optimise the experience for caravanning enthusiasts, Dave and his team leveraged their comprehensive experience in composite manufacturing across the marine, aeronautical and civil construction sectors to design and manufacture the world’s best adventure caravans.
From a start-up in 2015 to employing more than 230 staff at its purpose-built facility, Zone RV now offers the ultimate luxury in off-road caravans, striking a balance between strength and lightness. All models across the three classes – Sojourn, Peregrine & Expedition – prioritize safety and weight, and are engineered and equipped to navigate challenging terrains. “We understood from the beginning that a top tier product could only materialize from cutting-edge equipment, capable of maximizing the attributes of advanced materials and intricate engineering software systems. We have employed advanced composites, bonding and adhesive technologies across all elements of the build, assisting our vans in maintaining the Gross Combined Mass (GCM) within the capability of a typical tow vehicle,” stated Dave.
Adhesives play a pivotal role in reducing weight, maintaining structural integrity, and enhancing production economics. Particularly, they prove crucial in the task of fusing dissimilar materials, with the resulting structures demonstrating consistent performance under a wide range of conditions.
Zone is using Korapop 225/2k, a 2-part part hybrid moisture curing construction sealant and adhesive by H.B. Fuller. Upon curing – in a little less than three hours – it forms a seal that is durable, flexible and weather resistant. As a mid-high modulus product, it possesses vibration dampening capabilities and resistance to shock and impact, effectively dealing with vehicle bounce and road corrugation. Importantly, the range is devoid of isocyanates and solvents.
Zone also uses Korapop 240A which is manufactured locally in Melbourne offering a longer shelf life compared to imported counterparts.
In 2022, Zone RV significantly enhanced its production capability and capacity with the acquisition of a large volume 3D printing system. This is a VSF Composite printer from Australian manufacturer CNC Design, and is said to be the largest in the southern hemisphere. The massive system, now installed at Zone RV’s manufacturing facility, serves in trimming and polishing moulds and printing blanks for mould production. The large area gantry system manages to integrate five-axis milling and three-axis printing in one machine. The VSF system is a single-bridge gantry spanning 22m x 5m x 1.6m, equipped with Siemens SINUMERIK ONE – one of the most advanced CNC systems currently available. The machine undertakes high speed five-axis milling using a 10kW, 20,000 rpm milling spindle from HSD Mechatronics, complemented by swarf extraction. Three-axis 3D printing occurs through a CNC Design Model 30 print head, featuring a vacuum pellet drying and conveying system, allowing printing rates of up to 30 kilograms per hour. The system also provides five axis orbital sanding; incorporating a built-in tool rack, part probing and print head calibration unit.
One of the significant benefits of 3D printing technology, according to Dave, is Rapid Prototyping. “We have the capability to design, manufacture, test and subsequently modify a custom part within a brief timeframe, without compromising the pace of the production line. This gives us liberty to innovate without lengthy lead times or the requirement for warehouses brimming with costly machinery. We are now 3D printing many of our smaller production parts and components.”
The SUMMIT series, sitting at the top tier of the product range, claims to be the first carbon-fibre timber free fully bonded caravan. It features a frameless carbon fibre monocoque design and external skins crafted from carbon fibre sandwich panels with an enhanced PET core which is many more times thermally efficient than ‘traditional’ construction materials. Designed and manufactured to be a structural alternative to legacy materials, a complete panel set includes floor, walls and one-piece roof panels all of which are fabricated without mechanical fasteners significantly reducing build times. According to Dave, substituting the fibreglass external skin of the sandwich panelling with carbon fibre has also helped reduce overall.
Recognising that advanced equipment operates at its best in skilled hands, Dave prioritised investment in an apprenticeship training program that blends traditional institutional training, with on-site tutorials and assessment. Currently, the company boasts four apprentices under the tutelage of the Brisbane based PARTEC Composites Training Centre. Dieter Heydenrych, a Composites Technician with PARTEC, visits regularly and often spends a day working hand-in-hand with his apprentices. The apprentices carry out their practical assignments on the floor, utilizing Zone’s specialized equipment and materials. Dave muses, “Who wouldn’t want to work on cool sophisticated equipment on the Sunshine Coast while gaining a composites technician trade qualification?”