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Composites in Manufacturing – Grand Designs

Formaplex regularly makes the news for our wide variety of work and project successes across many manufacturing sectors including aerospace, automotive, defence, medical, renewable and space.

This article is reproduced by kind permission of leading journal Composites In Manufacturing. It appeared in February 2020. To view it online, please click here:

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Mike Richardson meets with Formaplex’s sales director Matt Sellens to hear more about the current progress of the company’s Composite Research & Development Centre and the eye-catching supercar components it produces.

If you appreciate the aesthetics of modern engineering then you cannot help but marvel at some of the curves and lines of modern supercar designs on show at Formaplex’s Horndean facilities.

And if you are launching a new high-end model or range, these guys have the expertise to deliver quality carbon fibre, composite and polymer components that can help set your brand apart from the rest. Like some rare and precious metal hidden beneath a ton of rock, Formaplex takes the time and trouble to separate from the stock.

Officially opened by Professor Gordon Murray CBE in June 2019, the Research & Development Centre forms part of Formaplex’s four facilities including seven business units at the Composite Components Campus, located in the South of England. Indeed, when the company first began it wondered whether it would fill a 3,500 ft² unit – now it has over 300,000 ft² in production floorspace.

On a guided tour around the plant with sales director Matt Sellens, it’s abundantly clear that Formaplex is a classic example of what the UK is good at and particularly in being an expert at swapping metal for carbon fibre, composite and polymer components across a range of vehicles to add lightness at all stages.

“We are established in the high-end automotive sector supplying lightweight composite components to supercar programmes. The UK has some of the best supercar companies in the world and this sector has a wealthy global customer base, with demand exceeding supply.”

Matt Sellens, Sales Director

Made in Britain

Sellens sees a conscious change in Formaplex’s customer base to re-shore production sourcing back to the UK, which he says speaks volumes for the quality and capability the company has in the UK composites industry – and how reactive and responsive it is to its customers’ needs.

“Our ability to develop new automated high-volume manufacturing processes only reinforces this position and strengthens our range of product and process offerings,” he begins. “I regularly remind our UK customers that they will never have to emergency airfreight our products thousands of miles to keep the production line running. This gives us huge flexibility and the ability to react very quickly to our customers’ requirements, plus we can always be at their sites at short notice.

“We are established in the high-end automotive sector supplying lightweight composite components to supercar programmes. The UK has some of the best supercar companies in the world and this sector has a wealthy global customer base, with demand exceeding supply.”

Formaplex’s Composites Components Campus encompasses high quality epoxy pattern machining through to composite mould tool lamination, jigs and fixture manufacture, component manufacture, machining and specialist painting and lacquering creating a dedicated full-service supply for composite component manufacture. The showpieces of the R&D Centre include a 600 tonne Hare press and a brand new Stratasys F900 3D printer.

“We are always investing in new equipment; the most recent is a Stratasys F900 FDM 3D printer. We have a full order book for the year and continue to build business in 3D printing. This is a great fit with our composites production and is another example of reducing our need to outsource. Our R&D centre has two more 2.2m x 5m Italmatic autoclaves, bringing our total to five including the largest at 3m x 6m – two more cleanrooms on top of the existing three and a 600-tonne vertical press with a 2.1m x 1.6m bed.

Exceptional everyday

Formaplex has also been nominated as a technical partner for the composite components on the chassis and body of Gordon Murray Automotive’s T.50 supercar. Conceived as the spiritual successor to the Murray-devised McLaren F1, the T.50 will be the purest, lightest, most driver-focused supercar ever built.

Formaplex is also supplying the complete carbon fibre interior for the Singer Dynamics and Lightweighting Study (DLS), but as Sellens is keen to point out, it doesn’t just work on supercar contracts.

“We serve multiple sectors supplying lightweight engineered solutions and we say our aim is to deliver the exceptional every day. In aerospace we produce fan case liners and machine wing skins. In high-end automotive, we produce lacquered visual carbon fibre parts, pressed SMC and wet pressed recycled carbon fibre epoxy body panels and carbon fibre components for motorsport. Our defence contract work comprises submarine mast modules, and in the medical sector it’s the provision of equipment casings and arms.”

Take a guided tour of the various Formaplex plants and you will witness the automated process of pressing Gordon Murray Design’s iStream lightweight composite seat pan in under 5 minutes, which is the culmination of an Innovate UK project undertaken in partnership with Gordon Murray Design as part of the Manufacturability of Advanced Passenger Seats (MAPS) programme. Once finished and trimmed, the iStream lightweight seat comprises a sub-12kg fully-functional composite automotive seat. The press also produces liquid compression moulded (LCM) roof panels using recycled carbon fibre, as well as sheet moulded compound (SMC) components.

“We produce automotive pressed composite components, including SMC and wet-pressed recycled carbon fibre from ELG Carbon Fibre, and carbon SMC pressing. We were also proud sponsors of the Cambridge University EcoRacer that competed in the Bridgestone trans-Australia Solar Challenge. The tooling was produced at our facilities for the full-size carbon fibre car, including the tub and we provided our facilities and experts in laminating and curing the chassis and body in black.”

In terms of the types of demands placed on Formaplex by today’s customers, where price, quality and delivery are a given, I’m keen to know whether there is anything else, such as customer relationships, flexibility, after-sales support, the personal touch for example?

“We thrive in solving our customers’ challenges. By working closely with our customers and providing design for manufacture support we have built great relationships with them. All our sales team are engineers; we have multiple process offerings and work with our customers to provide the right solution for their needs.

“We have so much capability under one roof from design, pattern machining, composite tooling, laminating, assembling and lacquering. Critically this means that we can be in total control of our destiny from start to finish. We have competitors for each element, but few can match our delivery of all aspects from concept to completed finished product.”

It all points to a game-changing moment for Formaplex. Having a can-do approach, an openness and commitment to its customers has brought the company to this point and in doing so, opens up many more opportunities within the composites manufacturing industry.

“We are currently refreshing our branding and you will see this in our website over the coming months,” Sellens concludes. “We are coming of age and it is time to refresh our external visibility and to show the complete engineering company that we now are. We are growing fast enough to keep up with our growing customer base. Success breeds success – it’s a great challenge to have!”

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