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LFT: the future of

reinforced thermoplastics?
The application

of long fibre

the automotive

industry

commercially
Breugel,

Centre

advantages

ibre

available

reinforced

where

large production

processing

of Lightweight

thermoplastics

equipment.

Structures,

reinforced

plastics

(FRP) are

many cases the properties of these materials allow


their
application
as a
construction
material where they replace,
for example, metals.
A second group of FRP is fibre reinforced thermoplastics,
where thermoplastic material is used as the matrix for
the fibre reinforcement.
Compared
to
thermosets,
these materials often show
better
impact
properties,
increased
toughness and they can be processed
a fast and clean way.

in

Ferrie

van Hattum

Large-scale application
of these materials has so far been limited to short
fibre
reinforced
injection
moulding
materials.
The material
properties
in
these cases are about two to three times
higher than the unreinforced
material.
In the automotive
industry
glass mat
reinforced
thermoplastic
(GMT) (often
glass reinforced polypropylene)
is widely
used in semi-structural,
compression
moulded parts. High end applications
can be found in, for instance, the use of
high quality thermoplastic
matrices like
polyetheretherketone
(PEEK) with carbon fibre reinforcement.
In spite of the
excellent
properties
of this group of
materials, their high cost and processing
limitations
allow only limited application in, for example, aerospace products.

Price

42

relationship

REINFORCEDplastics

between different

Ju n e 2 0 0 1

fibre reinforced

thermoplastics.

limited

to

and Sjef van

discuss the potential

a more economical

Continuous fibre
reinforced plastics

Figure I: Price-property

mainly

runs offset the high cost of

the Netherlands,

of LFT over GMT and introduce

used in products
where weight
savings, reduced production
costs,
low maintenance
costs and freedom of
design are an issue. In these cases,
thermosets
are traditionally
used, reinforced with glass or carbon fibres. In

has been

production

machine.

In terms of price and properties there


is a huge gap between short fibre reinforced thermoplastics
and GMT on the
one hand and continuous
fibre reinforced thermoplastics
on the other hand.
This keeps fibre reinforced thermoplastics
from wider application as (semi-)structural materials in relatively cheap and fast
processes for large production series.

LFT
A relatively
new group of materials,
long
fibre reinforced
thermoplastics
(LFT) can exactly fill this gap. LFTs
are
thermoplastics
reinforced
with
discontinuous
long fibres (a few centimetres in length) and (unlike GMT)
are available
in different
fibre and
matrix combinations.
As a result, for
every application
the right material
combination
can be used. This characteristic
enables
LFT to fill the gap
between
GMT and continuous
fibre
reinforced thermoplastics
(see Figure 1).
Furthermore
some specific advantages
make LFT a serious
competitor
in
terms of price for products
in which
GMT is traditionally
used. In addition,
the compression
moulding
process for
these materials has not yet been fully
optimised. Better control of the effect of
the process on fibre distribution
in the
final product,
and therefore
on the
material properties,
can result in considerably improved
product properties
using the same materials.

0034-3617/07/$
see front matter 0 2001
Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.

LFT: the future of reinforced

The potential
compared
product

cost reduction

to

GMT

quality

and

has been

of LFT
improved

demonstrated

in the front-ends
of the Volkswagen
Passat series which are currently made of
LFT, at the expense of the GMT previously used. In this example

some advantages

of LFT over GMT are:


the

possibility

semi-finished

of working
materials

without

(in-line

extru-

sion compression
moulding):
less
labour intensive;
greater freedom of
materials;
lower

easier to recycle;

compression

forces

due

to

better flow which results in cost savings

with

respect

to

thermoplastics?

moulds

and

machinery;
better surface quality;
shorter cycle times; and
less rejected products.

Economic advantages

of LfT

One of the reasons why the application


of LET has so far been mainly limited to
the automotive industry lies in the high
equipment costs of commercially available LPT processing machines. Large
production series are required to counterbalance these costs.
CPI indicates that using its (direct)
LFT process for glass/polypropylene (PP)
LPT can be economically justified if the
equipment is used to process approximately 450 000 kg of material annually.
This can usually only be attained with
applications in the automotive industry.
By using its in-line process, savings of

In the West European automotive industry alone, it is expected that by 2008 LFT
will account for 20% of the total amount
of fibre reinforced thermoplastics
used.
Products in other markets are also suitable for the application of LFT. Examples
include street furniture,
self-supporting
housing and machine parts.

approximately $O.SS/kg of material can


be re&sed. This implies that using such
a process, one has to take into account
approximately $2SQ 000 of capital ar ld I
royalty expenses annually. This is mainly caused by the high equipment costs
of such a machine,
The machine developed by the CLS
costs only a fraction of its commercially
available counterparts.
This reduces
required investments and associated
risks to a minimum. This makes the LPT
technology accessible for new markets,
where much smaller production series
are common.

[a) Melting the material

(b) Material ejection and


insertion in the mould

(c) Compression
and cooling

(d) Release product

The process
The processing of LFT (see Figure 2) is
very similar that of GMT and, to a lesser
extent,
sheet
moulding
compound
(SMC), and can be described in a simplified way by four steps:
melting the material;
ejection and insertion in the mould;

Figure

2:

The processing steps

moulding

for LFT.

compression moulding; and


cooling under pressure and release of
the product.

In the processing of LFT the conservation of fibre length


(and hence the
mechanical
properties of the final product) is vital. The first step, the melting
of LFT, is therefore not done using a traditional extruder. Traditionally
extruders work with high shear forces in the
mat-erial,
which
causes considerable
fibre breakage. Several companies
have
developed extruders especially for LFT,
which melt the material whilst conserv-

ing the fibre length.


However, these
machines
require a significant
investment (about go.51
million),
one reason why their application
has so far
been mainly limited to the automotive
industry.
In processing
LFT two different
methods
are used, mainly
differing
in the initial materials
used. Indirect
LFT processing uses semi-finished
materials supplied by several manufacturers
in pellet form which are then melted
in the extruder.
Manufacturers
that
supply LFT with different fibre/matrix
combinations
include DSM, LNP, Asahi,

RTP and Ticona.


To take advantage
of the economy
of the LFT process to
the greatest extent fibres and matrix
material
can also be mixed in the
extruder, so called direct LFT processing. This eliminates
the need for semifinished
materials.
As a result of this
cost reduction
this is the preferred
method
in the automotive
industry
(still only in combination
with glass/
polypropylene),
where
traditionally
cost plays a dominant
role.
After melting, the desired quantity of
material is ejected from the extruder and
cut-off by a cutting device. The molten
June

2001

RElNFoRCEDplastics

43

LFT: the future

of reinforced

thermoplastics?

at a pressure of at least SO-100 bars, after


which the mould is opened and the
product

can be taken out.

the

machines

sibility

New developments
Because

of the

go with

the

large

investments

purchase

of the

to the automotive

in a cold

that

required

--t
l

Structures

the

of Aerospace

ing fibre length

10

15

20

25

30

35

v, W)

1t

Ygure

4:

Stiffness versus fibre fraction for different LFh.

300

PP-GF

itj
100

ranging

polypropylene

from

reinforced

glass

fibre

(PP) to

polyamide

3) LFT
combinreincarbon

(PA) have

and tested. The possibil-

ness and bending

strength

of the LFT

(in this case the two extremes:


glass fibre

reinforced

in

stiff-

PP and

12.5 mm
25 mm

carbon fibre reinforced


PA 12) versus
fibre volume fraction are plotted. It is
clearly shown that by modifying
material combinations
and fibre fractions a
wide range of stiffnesses can be attained
(the shaded area). In this way properties
can be tailored
to the final desired
product
properties.
Extension
of this
area is possible by further change of
the parameters
mentioned.
For comparison, the properties of GMT are also
given, which clearly shows the position
of LFT relative to this material.
Note that in Figure 5 at higher fibre
fractions the strength
of the glass/PP
material
decreases.
Too high a fibre
fraction does not necessarily
result in
better properties.
Apart from possible applications
of
LFT and attainable properties (Figure 1:
New material combinations)
the research
at the CLS also aims at process control
(Figure 1: Control): the relation between
processing parameters, fibre orientation,
and
distribution
and
fibre
length
W
product properties.

.-.'_

50

10

15

20

v, WI

rigwe 5: Strength versus fibre fraction for different L-s.

44

ations
forced
fibre

(Figure

fibre/matrix

=?Ix
0

and

(see Figure 3). Because of

of

of Technology,

Engineering,

Centre

(CLS TUD-TNO), a

A(

5000

machine

Figures 4 and 5, where the tensile

At

PP-GF
PA12-CF (25 mm)
GMT

10000
15000

this

different

ities that LFT offers are clearly shown

sector.

E
w

Using
with

motive

25000

20000

sector, but its

TN0 Industrial
Technology,
research is
being directed LFT. As part of this work a
patented piston-blender
has been developed for melting the LFT while conserv-

mould, which then closes at relatively


high speed. On closing the LFT material
will start to flow to fill the mould cavity.
During cooling the mould is kept closed

LFT at only minor

nities for the material outside of the auto-

faculty
inserted

of processing

been processed

merger of Delft University


is then

its

evident that there are also many opportu-

Lightweight

LFT material

construction,

investments.

extruder and press for the processing


of LFT, the materials use has mainly been
limited

simple

cost is only a fraction of that of conventional LFT extruders and it offers the pos-

REINFoRCEDplastics

I un e 2 00 1

25

30

35

CLS TUD-TN0 is looking for companies


interested in the application of LFT in
products or in further development of the
piston-blender to an industrial level. Aldert
Verheus, CLS TUD-TNO, Delft, the
Netherlands; tel: +31-l 52781778.