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Testing times

SEKISUI POLYMER INNOVATIONS is getting ready to open a new test facility in Bloomsburg, PA, in the near future
 
The company has been in aviation products since 1965, says Ronn Cort, Chief Operating Officer and President, SEKISUI SPI, having developed the
first thermoplastic component for United Airlines, but it has always been a supplier of materials that are then used with something else, such as multiple layer bonded lay-ups. However, the most fundamental change in the last five years has been a desire for disparate materials from different suppliers to be brought together and be approved for flight.
 
This is usually done by the manufacturer, which then follows its own development path, and, as it is not a materials expert, this slows down the speed of innovation. The company saw an opportunity and a need for material suppliers, including leather and foam manufacturers, to come together and collaborate to give finished possibilities to the manufacturers that had a high chance of being successfully integrated onto an aircraft. As one of the biggest issues is testing, where individually approved materials may not pass the stringent requirements when in combination, perhaps through reactions between materials, the company set up its own test laboratory four years ago to help expedite the manufacturers’ development processes. 
 
Instead of them using an independent facility, they could get some low cost feedback from SEKISUI SPI on whether they were headed in the right direction. With the advent of carbon fibre, glass fibre fill, lightweight materials, new foams and new technologies, it became clear that it was not just the ability to pass the certification tests that were required. An even bigger challenge was how easily they could be processed in manufacture. This was because seat structures were becoming ever more complex in the premium cabin, with large 3D structures that combined materials with different properties and characteristics that needed different techniques to form them into shapes that would fit together as desired.
 
He says the seating manufacturers did not have the necessary equipment and struggled as a result. At the same time, they were reluctant to ask their supply base for help as there would be an inevitable cost involved. This, was what he calls the ‘Aha!’ moment for SEKISUI SPI, and the decision was made to develop the appLab. It was developed from the company’s Technical Services department which, traditionally, had been there to support customers with issues.
 
About four years ago, it was decided to make the team market-specific (the company also works across other product areas such as mass transit, medical devices and building products) and let them become Subject Matter Experts. The appLab will now be a dedicated space for the teams, allowing them to collaborate with customers, not only to look at theoretical processes to develop a new product, but also to actually develop a finished sample that confirms that the processes work. To do this, they looked at the range of production equipment used by the subcontractors to the main manufacturers and then made an $8 million investment in procuring the same items (such as pressure forming machines, thermoforming machines, injection moulding machines, 5-axis CNC machines and 3D printers), as well as test equipment.
 
It is not just the manufacturers that will be involved. Including the design agencies at an early stage of development, which have introduced the advanced technology, means that when the development cycle reaches the stage of producing the first article seat, the combination of innovative materials will have been proven. This assures a much higher probability of successful series production. A good example of this is a seat shell combining carbon fibre for strength, with thermoplastics for decoration. A combination of heat, pressure and a vacuum can mould the two materials together into a single piece. 
 
Not only is this a single process, but the finished product will be much lighter than current methods with the same strength. He adds that, three years ago, the driver behind this would have been the premium cabins but now, there is an increasing interest in making economy class more attractive to passengers. This provides opportunities for more decorative products or lighter and thinner products, especially for combinations of injection moulding and thermoforming, including carbon fibre-filled injection resin with thermoplastics moulded on top or underneath.
 
This opens up the possibility of supporting higher volume, lower cost economy class seating, where he thinks there is a lot of opportunity. The two-storey 750m² building, designed in the Bauhaus style, is now under construction, with the first equipment expected to be moved in during October. While that equipment is still in the commissioning stage, work is already going on with two seating companies on projects. In fact, he says, there is more interest than can be handled at the moment and this may not change when the appLab is fully up and running later in the year. 
 
In addition to strong relationships with four of the leading aircraft seat OEMs that will have long-term support, there are some emerging companies that do not even have seats flying yet and, he comments, these are the ones that have really switched on to the possibilities of appLab, as they have the most innovative designs, breaking the mould.

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