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Composite Moulding Methods

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In general, the reinforcing and matrix materials are combined, compacted and processed to undergo a melding event. After the melding event, the part shape is essentially set, although it can deform under certain process conditions. For a thermoset polymeric matrix material, the melding event is a curing reaction that is initiated by the application of additional heat or chemical reactivity such as an organic peroxide. For a thermoplastic polymeric matrix material, the melding event is a solidification from the melted state. For a metal matrix material such as titanium foil, the melding event is a fusing at high pressure and a temperature near the melt point.

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For many moulding methods, it is convenient to refer to one mould piece as a "lower" mould and another mould piece as an "upper" mould. Lower and upper refer to the different faces of the moulded panel, not the mould's configuration in space. In this convention, there is always a lower mould, and sometimes an upper mould. Part construction begins by applying materials to the lower mould. Lower mould and upper mould are more generalized descriptors than more common and specific terms such as male side, female side, a-side, b-side, tool side, bowl, hat, mandrel, etc. Continuous manufacturing processes use a different nomenclature.

The moulded product is often referred to as a panel. For certain geometries and material combinations, it can be referred to as a casting. For certain continuous processes, it can be referred to as a profile. Applied with a pressure roller, a spray device or manually. This process is generally done at ambient temperature and atmospheric pressure. Two variations of open moulding are Hand Layup and Spray-up.

Vacuum bag moulding
A process using a two-sided mould set that shapes both surfaces of the panel. On the lower side is a rigid mould and on the upper side is a flexible membrane or vacuum bag. The flexible membrane can be a reusable silicone material or an extruded polymer film. Then, vacuum is applied to the mould cavity. This process can be performed at either ambient or elevated temperature with ambient atmospheric pressure acting upon the vacuum bag. Most economical way is using a venturi vacuum and air compressor or a vacuum pump.

A vacuum bag is a bag made of strong rubber-coated fabric or a polymer film used to bond or laminate materials. In some applications the bag encloses the entire material, or in other applications a mold is used to form one face of the laminate with the bag being single sided to seal the outer face of the laminate to the mold. The open end is sealed and the air is drawn out of the bag through a nipple using a vacuum pump. As a result, uniform pressure approaching one atmosphere is applied to the surfaces of the object inside the bag, holding parts together while the adhesive cures. The entire bag may be placed in a temperature-controlled oven, oil bath or water bath and gently heated to accelerate curing.

In commercial woodworking facilities vacuum bags are used to laminate curved and irregular shaped workpieces.

Vacuum bagging is widely used in the composites industry as well. Carbon fiber fabric and fiberglass, along with resins and epoxies are common materials laminated together with a vacuum bag operation.

Typically, polyurethane or vinyl materials are used to make the bag, which is commonly open at both ends. This gives access to the piece, or pieces to be glued. A plastic rod is laid onto the bag, which is then folded over the rod. A plastic sleeve with an opening in it, is then snapped over the rod. This procedure forms a seal at both ends of the bag, when the vacuum is ready to be drawn.

A "platen" is used inside the bag for the piece being glued to lay on. The platen has a series of small slots cut into it, to allow the air under it to be evacuated. The platen must have rounded edges and corners to prevent the vacuum from tearing the bag.

When a curved part is to be glued in a vacuum bag, it is important that the pieces being glued be placed over a solidly built form, or have an air bladder placed under the form. This air bladder has access to "free air" outside the bag. It is used to create an equal pressure under the form, preventing it from being crushed.

Pressure bag moulding

This process is related to vacuum bag moulding in exactly the same way as it sounds. A solid female mould is used along with a flexible male mould. The reinforcement is placed inside the female mould with just enough resin to allow the fabric to stick in place (wet lay up). A measured amount of resin is then liberally brushed indiscriminately into the mould and the mould is then clamped to a machine that contains the male flexible mould. The flexible male membrane is then inflated with heated compressed air or possibly steam. The female mould can also be heated. Excess resin is forced out along with trapped air. This process is extensively used in the production of composite helmets due to the lower cost of unskilled labor. Cycle times for a helmet bag moulding machine vary from 20 to 45 minutes, but the finished shells require no further curing if the moulds are heated.

Autoclave moulding

A process using a two-sided mould set that forms both surfaces of the panel. On the lower side is a rigid mould and on the upper side is a flexible membrane made from silicone or an extruded polymer film such as nylon. Reinforcement materials can be placed manually or robotically. They include continuous fibre forms fashioned into textile constructions. Most often, they are pre-impregnated with the resin in the form of prepreg fabrics or unidirectional tapes. In some instances, a resin film is placed upon the lower mould and dry reinforcement is placed above. The upper mould is installed and vacuum is applied to the mould cavity. The assembly is placed into an autoclave. This process is generally performed at both elevated pressure and elevated temperature. The use of elevated pressure facilitates a high fibre volume fraction and low void content for maximum structural efficiency.


Resin transfer moulding (RTM)

A process using a two-sided mould set that forms both surfaces of the panel. The lower side is a rigid mould. The upper side can be a rigid or flexible mould. Flexible moulds can be made from composite materials, silicone or extruded polymer films such as nylon. The two sides fit together to produce a mould cavity. The distinguishing feature of resin transfer moulding is that the reinforcement materials are placed into this cavity and the mould set is closed prior to the introduction of matrix material. Resin transfer moulding includes numerous varieties which differ in the mechanics of how the resin is introduced to the reinforcement in the mould cavity. These variations include everything from vacuum infusion (for resin infusion see also boat building) to vacuum assisted resin transfer moulding (VARTM). This process can be performed at either ambient or elevated temperature.

Other types of moulding include press moulding, transfer moulding, pultrusion moulding, filament winding, casting, centrifugal casting and continuous casting. There are also forming capabilities including CNC filament winding, vacuum infusion, wet lay-up, compression moulding, and thermoplastic moulding, to name a few. The use of curing ovens and paint booths is also needed for some projects.

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